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N.J. Gubernatorial Primary Seen As A Referendum On Gov. Chris Christie


New Jersey Governor Chris Christie leaves office at the end of the year. The end of his term sets up one of the major elections of 2017. His lieutenant governor Kim Guadagno is running to replace him. She was often acting governor of New Jersey as Christie left the state to campaign for president last year. This week, the state holds a primary election. Here's Nancy Solomon of our member station WNYC.

NANCY SOLOMON, BYLINE: Despite being considered one of the most important elections of 2017, the latest poll found a third of all voters still don't know enough about the candidates to form an opinion. And that even extends to the leading Republican, Kim Guadagno. She's been at Governor Chris Christie's side for seven and a half years.


CHRIS CHRISTIE: Welcome to the team, Kim.

KIMBERLY GUADAGNO: Thanks, Chris. I'm proud to be part of the team.

SOLOMON: But Christie's fortunes crashed shortly after his re-election in 2013 when the Bridgegate scandal was revealed.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The GW bridge is totally gridlocked if you...

SOLOMON: The traffic jam for political retribution scheme and other problems in New Jersey left Christie with the lowest approval rating of any governor in the nation and Guadagno running away from him. She opposed Christie's successful effort to raise the gas tax. But her challenger, state Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli, said during a recent debate that she didn't go far enough.


JACK CIATTARELLI: She didn't speak up on the gas tax until after the raging debate had ended. In fact, she had an opportunity to veto the gas tax...

GUADAGNO: Though, let me get this straight, Jack. When the governor leaves the state of New Jersey, you want the lieutenant governor of the state of New Jersey to tip down the hall, pull off the desk a document that's - and veto it?

SOLOMON: Ciattarelli's attacks have been effective, scoring the little-known candidate several key endorsements, including the state's two largest newspapers. On the Democratic side, there's also a lack of enthusiasm. The leading candidate is Phil Murphy, a former Goldman Sachs executive. He's raised more than $16 million, most of it from his own pocket. Murphy made donations to every county Democratic committee in the state which won him their endorsements and scorn from his rivals, like Assemblyman John Wisniewski.


JOHN WISNIEWSKI: For the past two years, this Democratic primary has been run a bit like an auction, except there's only one candidate who keeps bidding up the price.

SOLOMON: But Murphy will benefit from a vestige of New Jersey's machine politics. Each county committee gets to anoint their candidate for the top line of the ballot, along with other well-known local elected officials. That could be worth 200,000 votes, says Patrick Murray of the Monmouth University Polling Institute. Murray says Murphy has aggressively wooed key Democrats.

PATRICK MURRAY: Including interest group leaders, labor union leaders but also these county committee people who actually matter. And Phil Murphy basically had breakfast or lunch with almost every single one of those folks over the past couple of years.

SOLOMON: Even if voters aren't excited about their choices now, come November the general election will likely be seen as a referendum on Chris Christie and Donald Trump. And that will finally get more attention. For NPR News, I'm Nancy Solomon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nancy Solomon