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A former Goldman executive just won New Jersey's Democratic primary for governor

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Phil Murphy, a former Goldman Sachs executive, is the frontrunner on the Democratic side in today’s election
Photo by Ralph Orlowski/Getty Images

Former Goldman Sachs executive Phillip Murphy won the New Jersey Democratic primary by more than 20 points on Tuesday, according to the Associated Press.

His victory may come as a surprise given that demands for a new kind of Democratic candidate swept much of the party’s base after it suffered big losses at the ballot box last fall. Campaign autopsies urged the party to embrace progressive candidates. Even Democrats in the Senate called for a bold new economic populism.

But in New Jersey, the Democratic Party appears to have returned to a playbook that predates Donald Trump’s rise — even after losing control of its governor’s mansion for the past seven years.

A longtime Goldman banker, Murphy’s résumé looks remarkably similar to that of former Gov. Jon Corzine, the longtime Goldman executive whom Gov. Chris Christie defeated in 2009. (The favorite in the Republican primary is Kim Guadagno, Christie’s lieutenant governor. She’s expected to be hampered by Christie, whose approval rating is lower in the state than Trump’s.)

See here for live results from the race:

"When Murphy first burst onto the scene with a nonprofit to position himself as an ‘idea-driven candidate,’ it came off as a blatant campaign maneuver. The reaction here was, 'We'll take your money, but no way: We won’t be fooled by this again,'" said Patrick Murray, director of Monmouth University Polling Institute and a New Jersey political expert. "Now Murphy will definitely be the nominee, and he’s certainly the odds-on favorite for November. It's been an amazing change."

To supporters, Murphy’s win reflects his strongly progressive policy positions, his commitment to retail politics, and the support he’s garnered from the state’s biggest unions and environmental organizations. Polls also suggest he is in a strong position to beat the Republican candidate this fall.

But to critics, Murphy’s rise highlights one of the core challenges for the progressive activists who had hoped the resistance movement would transform the opposition party. The best opportunities for Democrats to win general elections come in states like New Jersey that are traditionally left-leaning. And yet it’s exactly these same blue states where the party’s establishment is also strongest, and therefore where they’re most capable of putting down the insurgents trying to fundamentally reshape the kinds of candidates the Democratic Party puts forward.

NJ Democrats are turning to a choice similar to their former governor

In the wake of the election, progressive activists launched a series of new organizations aimed at pushing the Democratic Party to run a new kind of candidate — ones with more progressive backgrounds and fewer ties to the party’s donor base than Hillary Clinton.

Groups like Justice Democrats and the Brand New Congress sprang up to help fund candidates willing to break with the party’s financial elite. The People’s House Project launched in May with a similar agenda. Often, though not always, these new efforts have tried supporting Democratic primary candidates that are more closely aligned with Bernie Sanders’s vision for the party.

"The way you run now is based on your connection on the donor class — that’s how you’re evaluated. We have become beholden to not only the donor class but also the consultant-industrial complex," said 2010 Virginia congressional candidate Krystal Ball, who launched the People’s House Project. "We want to play with another way to run Democratic campaigns."

These kinds of activist efforts have fallen short time and time again. Recently, Bernie-linked attempts to take over the Democratic Party have fallen short in successive races for state party chairs in Florida, Iowa, and Maine. Most recently, Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) lost to establishment-favorite Tom Perez for control of the Democratic National Committee.

In New Jersey, Murphy, 59, has again quelled an attempted insurgency from the Sanders wing. On the one hand, this distinction is definitely an oversimplification. "On policy, you'd be very hard pressed to find a dime's worth of difference between any of the Democratic candidates," said Murray, the Monmouth professor. Sanders himself has stayed out of the race, and his son Levi Sanders has campaigned for Murphy.

On the other hand, Murphy’s résumé looks like a parody of what Berniecrats allege about the Clinton wing of the party. In the course of his 23 years at Goldman Sachs, where he started working the year before he graduated from Harvard University, Murphy came under attack for running a division that profited "from an investment into a shoe manufacturer notorious for its horrific work conditions and treatment of employees," according to an investigation by the Star-Ledger newspaper. (Murphy’s campaign says he had no role in the investments.)

After leaving Goldman, Murphy used his considerable financial fortune — estimated at hundreds of millions of dollars — to help steer the Democratic Party. Like many donors, Murphy was then rewarded with an ambassadorship to Germany, over the objection of Chancellor Angela Merkel, who opposed him. Murphy donated millions to Democrats before being appointed ambassador, spent more than $1.5 million on New Jersey Democrats before running for governor, and has poured $15 million of his own money into his race.

His opponents — former Brennan Center official Jim Johnson and John Wisniewski, the Sanders campaign’s manager in New Jersey — have both tried hammering Murphy over his Goldman ties. "You’d think on paper in a post-Trump world, when people are looking for new progressive blood, that Jim checks every progressive box," said Aleigha Cavalier, a Johnson spokesperson. But Johnson was roundly defeated anyway.

Money, endorsement rules, apathy helped Murphy sail to victory

A few critical factors helped buffer Murphy in the face of the twin insurgent candidacies. One of the biggest is money. Elections in New Jersey are unusually expensive, given that its two media markets are New York City and Philadelphia, and Murphy has spent close to $22 million on his campaign. His four rivals have spent a combined $5 million.

"It takes millions to win here, and the only way to get that firepower is an establishment politicians with the backing of the bosses or someone with a lot of their own money," said Brigid Callahan Harrison, a Montclair State University professor and president of the New Jersey Political Science Association. His opponents have neither.

Political scientists say the race long looked like a foregone conclusion in part because of the outsize role endorsements play in the state. Murphy has the support of every major Democratic official in the state, including Sens. Cory Booker and Bob Menendez, as well as Vice President Joe Biden and the state’s major union groups.

Additionally, county-level endorsements mean that Murphy’s name appeared on the ballot next to those of the other local Democrats running for office — a tool that helps the party establishment support its preferred candidate. (That alone ensures Murphy will nab upward of 200,000 votes, according to a statistical analysis Murray did based on previous New Jersey elections.)

Critics have charged that Murphy got an unfair advantage winning these endorsements. Murphy has also been freed to take hundreds of meetings over the campaign with activists and liberal groups in part because he’s independently wealthy and doesn’t have a day job, according to Murray. And his primary opponents argue that his war chest unfairly helped him spend years financing local New Jersey Democratic candidates, with Wisniewski saying Murphy used "his Wall Street fortune to buy party bosses with hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations."

Murphy’s campaign vehemently rejects that characterization. They say it should be viewed as an asset, not a vulnerability, for a Democrat running for statewide office to have secured the support most of his party’s key officials.

"It’s about giving Democrats the resources to win elections, and that’s what Phil has done in some of the reddest counties in the state," said Derek Roseman, a Murphy spokesperson, in an interview. "There was a confluence of factors this fall that allowed us to be well-positioned for this race. That’s politics."

Either way, the lack of competitiveness has meant the race has generated little national buzz or media attention. Polling shows more than half of the voters in New Jersey itself are hardly aware of the election. More than half of voters were undecided in the runup to Election Day.

"What we’re seeing is that where we have the potential to really use the Democratic base to win is, unfortunately, also the places where we also have really strong establishment politicians who don’t want to see the party change," said Corbin Trent, a spokesperson for Justice Democrats, the Sanders-backed group trying to unseat Democratic officials. "They’re literally putting bankers on the ballot now."

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