My 5 quick takeaways from the first N.J. gubernatorial debate

How much do debate really matter in 2017? It’s… debatable, Save Jerseyans.

Plenty of data suggests that they rarely move the numbers, even had the presidential level where there’s high viewership, so picking winners and losers in these things is therefore a nearly impossible task. All we know is that you certainly can lose a debate as Marco Rubio found out when he got punked by Chris Christie last year and the footage went viral.

Let’s talk about what we saw and then let the chips fall where they may.

In no particular order…

(1) Murphy (still) refuses to explain his secret math.

Regular readers know I’ve been harping on this point for weeks months now. When Guadagno called him on it? Noting how Murphy intends to spend $50-75 billion (with a “B”) more through his many spending proposals while raising only a fraction of the require revenues? The former Goldman Sachs profiteer lamely retorted that her attacks “have no basis in reality.” Okay, Phil… so when are you going to clue us into YOUR version of reality? I suspect the answer is: sometime in January when he’s removed from the voters’ judgment for a time.’s Matt Arco tried to elicit an answer from Murphy but came up empty handed as the Democrat rambled on (and on) about education and pensions. When WPVI’s Jim Gardner tried to get Phil to explain how he’s pay for his pension promises? He was met by dodging, to the point where Gardner, bristling, complained to the candidate directly. Scary stuff.

(2) This is quickly starting to sound like the base election that it is.

Ordinarily? Politicians move to the center, or at least attempt to “broaden” their delivery, as the general election draws closer. Not this year. Phil Murphy is going out of his way to embrace illegal immigration and Kim Guadagno is unabashedly discussing the virtues of gun ownership far more often than she did during the GOP primary. So what’s going on here? A few things. Chief among them: unusually low voter interest in this year’s gubernatorial contest. Poll after poll indicate voters either don’t know the candidates or haven’t bothered to form opinions. Insiders are openly speculating about turnout in the 30% range this year. The inevitable consequence of this apathetic environment is that both campaigns, and their candidates, will continue to shift their respective focuses to mobilizing hard-ish D’s and R’s. 

A recent RGA ad targeting Murphy.

(3) Property taxes? What property taxes?

New Jersey’s worst-in-the-country property taxes are the stuff of legend and, with federal tax reform possibly in the pipeline, more topical than ever before. Why, then, did they occupy so little time at Tuesday’s big debate? By my watch, we started with property taxes at 7:00 p.m. and were finished by 7:09. The other 51 minutes (minus commercial interruptions) was devoted to other stuff. They spent as much time talking about guns (when New Jersey already has among the strictest laws in the country — “You can’t even buy a BB gun without a permit,” h/t Guadagno) as property taxes. The media wants to talk Las Vegas because it’s good for ratings. Can we please, at some point, have a debate that’s good for my wallet? Slick politicians like Phil Murphy might have a harder time avoiding giving a straight property tax answer if that line of questioning lasted more than a few minutes. 

(4) Murphy’s Achilles heels? Taxes and yes, the Dreamers.

At one point, Murphy invoked the Statue of Liberty and declared that he’d defend the Dreamers from Donald Trump. That’s catnip for his base (see above). He’ll “have their backs.” Murphy used similar language back in September when asked during a Facebook live event about an infamous incident involving  an illegal alien who killed college students in Newark. At that time? Murphy declared he was ‘biased’ in favor of protecting illegals from the feds versus protecting crime victims. You can watch the exchange for yourself here.

Guadagno called him out on that and… surprise!… got a non-answer. He wants criminals prosecuted but wouldn’t explain how that squared with his prior refusal to deport illegal aliens (remember: he’s already pledged to open an office of immigrant protection). It was one of her strongest hits of the night. She needs to say more on the subject (and Murphy’s proposed tax hikes which got almost no attention) during the final four week sprint, preferably personally AND in paid media. Both issues will resonate with Republican and GOP lean voters. Anecdotally, I’ve spoke to a number of candidates/operatives who’ve spoken targeted voters on the phones and at doors, and they universally report that these persuadable voters respond negatively to Murphy’s plans to hike taxes by at least $1.3 billion.

(5) Guadagno presents a contrast to Murphy.

We can discuss her delivery and precise policy pronouncements until we’re blue in the  face, Save Jerseyans, but the bottom line is that Guadagno’s certainly “redder” than her Democrat rival on every issue including taxes, spending, unions benefits, immigration and gun control. I urged her to run on bolder colors (vs. paler pastels) back during the primary hunt. Now? As I mentioned above? She’s starting to do it. Republicans voters need a REAL choice to get them to the polls. She needs to continue to refine and define that “choice” as one between liberty & prosperity on the one hand and Murphy’s Venezuelan-style socialism fetish on the other. If anything? If I were here? I’d use stronger  language than liar and hyprocrite. Call the man kooky and crazy; he is. Taxpayers deserve to know.

Matt Rooney
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MATT ROONEY is's founder and editor-in-chief, a practicing New Jersey attorney, and the host of 'The Matt Rooney Show' on 1210 WPHT every Sunday evening from 7-10PM EST.