Guadagno not such a dark horse vs. Murphy | Opinion

NJ.com -- This has been the week of the entry of Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno into New Jersey's 2017 gubernatorial race.

The conventional wisdom of the state's political class is that Guadagno will win the Republican nomination and lose by a substantial margin in the general election to the likely Democratic nominee, former Goldman Sachs partner and U.S. Ambassador to Germany Phil Murphy.

This conventional wisdom is based largely on two factors, one historical and the other political. The historical factor is New Jersey's status as a Democratic state, where a nonincumbent Republican has been elected only if he or she has run as a replacement or successor to a highly unpopular Democratic incumbent.

The political factor is the massive albatross Guadagno carries as the lieutenant governor of Gov. Chris Christie, whose poll ratings are approaching historically low levels for New Jersey governors. Guadagno has taken significant measures to distance herself from Christie. Still, it is unlikely that she will be able to totally remove the negative impact of Christie on her candidacy.

Guadagno's candidacy is further hindered by the fact that megamillionaire Murphy will be able to spend tens of millions on his candidacy while Guadagno must rely largely on state matching funds. Nevertheless, I do give Guadagno a chance of upsetting the conventional-wisdom applecart. She is a candidate with significant positive assets, and Murphy, while a profoundly decent and ethical individual, is a candidate with definite weaknesses.

I often analogize politicians with boxers. To me, Murphy is the Floyd Patterson of contemporary New Jersey politics: a candidate with a big punch, namely his wealth, but with a political glass jaw, namely his political resemblance to Jon Corzine, a liberal oligarch advocate of out-of-control state spending.

The Guadagno positives are striking. She has a pleasant professional appearance and excellent communication skills. Her issue awareness is superb, and her ability to analyze and dissect complicated state problems is extraordinary. Her record as a federal and state prosecutor and Monmouth County sheriff has been stellar. Finally, as lieutenant governor, her record as the liaison with the business community in dealing with regulatory issues and state financing programs has resulted in her being one of the very few Christie administration success stories.

This Guadagno record of public accomplishment contrasts vividly with an undistinguished Murphy public service record. Murphy did serve as the chair of a New Jersey Benefit Task Force appointed by former Gov. Richard Codey and as U.S. ambassador to Germany during President Barack Obama's first term. Yet he achieved no notable success in either role.

Murphy's career successes were achieved at Goldman Sachs, the ultimate symbol of American oligarchy. And it is this perception of "Murphy, the Oligarch" that constitutes his ultimate political albatross, especially when it pertains to lifestyle.

Guadagno, her husband, New Jersey Superior Court Appellate Division Judge Michael Guadagno, and their three sons live a decidedly nonostentatious middle-class lifestyle. By contrast, Murphy, his wife Tammy and their children, during his tenure as ambassador to Germany, lived a lifestyle right out of the former Robin Leach television series, "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous." This lifestyle was vividly portrayed by Agustin C. Torres in articles in the Jersey Journal.

We are living in an era of a growing anti-oligarchical mood, as evidenced by the surprising showing of the Bernie Sanders campaign. Murphy is well aware of this. The oligarchy issue could result in a low turnout for Murphy among Sanders voters.

Accordingly, in order to hold the allegiance of the Sanders constituency and the public employees and teachers unions, Murphy is advocating huge spending increases. He cannot implement such boosts in expenditures without tax hikes reminiscent of those of former Gov. Jim Florio in 1990. Guadagno will be able to portray Murphy as the combination of the worst political features of Corzine and Florio.

Yet Guadagno is not without an issue vulnerability. In an appeal to GOP ultraconservatives, she made a mistake by opposing the recently passed gas tax hike package, which not only deals effectively with transportation funding needs but also provides for the elimination of the estate tax and the enactment of increased exemptions from the state income tax for senior citizens' pensions.

Guadagno would be well advised to focus not on ultraconservatives but instead on motivating the GOP center-right base and extending her appeal to independent voters. If she does that, Guadagno can become a surprisingly competitive gubernatorial candidate this year.

Alan J. Steinberg served as regional administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of former President George W. Bush and as executive director of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission under former Gov. Christie Whitman.