President Joe Biden last week became the latest prominent Democratic figure to appear with Gov. Phil Murphy in New Jersey as he campaigns for reelection. Former President Baraka Obama, First Lady Jill Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, and Second Gentleman Douglas Emhoff have all also stumped for the governor.
Biden spent a full day with Murphy on Oct. 25 promoting the $1 trillion infrastructure package and $1.75 trillion reconciliation bill which have both stalled in Congress. The visit came just eight days before voters head to the polls to decide whether Murphy gets another four years as governor or is replaced by the Republican challenger Jack Ciattarelli. But both the White House and Murphy’s office insisted that the visit was an effort to promote the president’s spending plans.
Murphy and Biden informally broke ground on the long-stalled $1.6 billion Portal North Bridge project, which would replace the century-old swing drawbridge that often gets stuck in the open position and snarls rail traffic into Manhattan. The president recited the now familiar method workers use to get back into position.
“You know what fixes it in the 21st century? Someone comes out with a sledgehammer to align the track,” Biden said during his remarks at the New Jersey Transit Maintenance Complex in Kearny. “This is more than an inconvenience or a nuisance. This is an impediment.”
The bridge project alone could create 8,000 New Jersey construction jobs, Biden said. And it’s part of the Gateway Development Project, a $30 billion infrastructure improvement plan for the New York-New Jersey metropolitan region.
Biden’s first stop in the state was the East End Elementary School in North Plainfield to tout the education and social safety benefits in his plan. Those proposals could include billions of dollars for New Jersey to combat climate change, expanded child care access and lower health care and prescription drug costs.
The president offered fewer remarks on the social safety net side of the spending bill, or “human infrastructure” as Murphy called it several days after the event. He mentioned for example, benefits such as universal prekindergarten, additions to the child tax credit, and funding to help low and middle-income families pay for child care.
In addition, some members of the state’s congressional delegation are pushing for repeal of the $10,000 cap on federal deductions for state and local property taxes, which has taken a considerable bite out of many New Jerseyans’ wallets.
Funds also could be included for the $12 billion effort to add a new Hudson River rail tunnel and to repair the existing tunnel, also components of the Gateway project. Like the bridge, the tunnel is more than a century old and in dire need of repair, especially after damages caused by Superstorm Sandy in 2012.
Both are critical links in the Northeast Corridor, a stretch of rail between Boston and Washington, D.C. and one of the most-heavily traveled stretches in the world. It’s frequented by Amtrak and in New Jersey, by NJ Transit.
Advocates warn that if the tunnel goes offline in even one direction, it could cripple the regional economy could be crippled and force commuters to use other modes of transportation.
“When it works, the Northeast Corridor fully functions. People get to work on time. Our economy moves forward,” Murphy said. “When it doesn’t, the Northeast Corridor, the people it carries, and all the economic activity it supports, comes to a screeching halt.”
“Over the recent past, that’s happened more and more often.”
Biden jabbed at a “Republican governor” who scuttled Gateway’s predecessor in 2010. Republican Gov. Chris Christie killed the Access to the Region’s Core Tunnel proposal that year citing the cost.
“These bills are about competitiveness versus complacency,” Biden said in his remarks.
Biden is working to win over Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, two conservative-leaning lawmakers. Because the Democrats hold only 50 seats in Congress, plus the tie breaking vote of Harris, they cannot afford to lose a single vote. The contours of the plans shifted as negotiations continued last week.
Officially, the New Jersey visit was billed as a means to promote the proposals, part of the president’s “Build Back Better” campaign in support of the two plans.
“Yeah, sure, right,” said Bob Hugin, who chairs the NJGOP organization, during a media call on the morning of the presidential visit. “Joe Biden is the president of the United States. Phil Murphy is running for reelection.”
But the White House maintained that the trip had nothing to do with Murphy’s reelection campaign. “Yes, as you know, the president did endorse Gov. Murphy. But as I said, he’s in New Jersey today to continue highlighting the importance of his two domestic economic policies,” Deputy Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters, according to a White House pool report.
While Murphy attracts big-ticket names to the Garden State, Ciattarelli hasn’t been able to bring out any high-profile national figures from the Republican establishment.
“He certainly doesn’t want [Donald] Trump” stumping for him, said Ashley Koning, who heads the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling at Rutgers University, “He probably doesn’t want a [Mitch] McConnell or [Kevin] McCarthy.”
Those figures, she said, would likely scare away independents and moderates whose votes Ciattarelli will need. “It’s become such a nationalized campaign that either candidate is going to want to tie their opponent to the boogeyman of the other side,” which in Ciattarelli’s case is Trump.
A poll earlier this month showed Murphy with a six-point lead over Ciattarelli, compared to a 16-point lead Murphy enjoyed against his challenger in a Monmouth University poll from August, fueling speculation that Murphy and his campaign are pulling out all the stops.
But with Biden’s poll numbers lagging — he has just a 38% approval rating among Americans according to Quinnipiac University — Patrick Murray, who heads the Monmouth University Polling Institute, said Biden needs Murphy more than the other way around. “Joe Biden’s popularity among Democrats, while still high, has been dropping and it’s not been enthusiastic,” Murray told NJBIZ. Certainly it’s not as high as Harris, Obama or Jill Biden.
And so while there are indeed political implications, Murray continued, the visit shows that “Murphy wants to be a national leader and this is a good way to get in the good graces of an incumbent in the White House.”
“This is the kind of thing that Joe Biden will not forget. This is a show of loyalty,” he said.
In addition, Murphy may not have much to worry about given an Oct. 27 poll from Monmouth, which showed him with an 11-point lead over Ciattarelli.
“The partisan difference in voter motivation seems to be related to the national mood as much as anything going on in the New Jersey campaign. Republican enthusiasm may help narrow the gap a bit down the stretch, but it’s not clear that it can close it in the next few days,” Murray said in a statement accompanying the poll.
But Koning said Murphy does have enough to be worried about as he heads into the home stretch. “This is likely tighter than I think any of us expected,” she said. “We know polls are just snapshots. They’re not really intended to predict.”