Labor Day isn’t just the unofficial end of the summer. It’s also the traditional start of the fall political season, when campaigns kick into overdrive to reach voters and lawmakers return from summer recesses to tackle pressing issues and votes.
This fall’s campaign season will feature the race to succeed Gov. Chris Christie as New Jersey’s next governor, as well as contests for all 120 seats in the Legislature.
There’s also the high-profile corruption trial of U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez and rampant speculation about the Democrat’s future and possible candidates to replace him.
If that wasn’t enough, members of Congress are returning from their August recess this month with a long to-do list, which includes raising the debt ceiling and passing spending bills to avoid a federal government shutdown.
Here is a look at some of the biggest political questions facing voters and lawmakers this fall:
Is the governor’s race over already?
The big contest at the top of the election ballot has been one-sided, as early polls gave Democratic nominee Phil Murphy a commanding 27-point lead over Republican Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno in their race to be the next chief executive.
Murphy, a former Goldman Sachs executive and U.S. ambassador to Germany, also enjoys a big advantage in campaign money, taking in about $3.28 million in public matching funds so far, compared with just over $888,000 received by Guadagno, according to the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission.
While Murphy enters the Labor Day weekend with a clear advantage, Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University, said there’s still time for Guadagno to mount a comeback and for Murphy to slip up.
“In many ways, a political campaign is like a tennis match. There’s plenty of unforced errors, and even the person in the lead can make mistakes,” Dworkin said. “There’s still time for this to be a race.”
Guadagno has focused her campaign largely on her promise to cut property taxes through the creation of a state credit on school taxes above 5 percent of family income. She has also attacked Murphy for planning to raise some $1.3 billion in new taxes.
Murphy’s campaign has said those revenues are expected to come from a proposed income tax hike on millionaires, as well as from closing tax loopholes for large corporations and legalizing and taxing marijuana.
The Democrat has also hit back at Guadagno, frequently reminding voters during town halls and other appearances that she has spent the last seven-plus years as the unpopular Christie’s top deputy, and that the state’s economic recovery from the recession has lagged compared with other states.
Murphy has pushed his own economic plan, which revolves around investing more in higher education, alternative energy and infrastructure.
Dworkin said voters will have to choose between the candidates’ contrasting plans and visions.
“Both candidates have real agendas and signature ideas. The voters are going to have to choose the direction they want the state to go at the conclusion of the Christie era,” he said.
Can Menendez’s political career survive?
The governor’s race may be 2017’s biggest political contest, but the outcome of Menendez’s federal corruption trial might have a tsunami-like impact on state politics.
Menendez and Florida eye doctor Salomon Melgen are facing multiple counts of fraud and bribery offenses in the federal case. Prosecutors have accused them of having a “quid pro quo” relationship, in which Melgen made large donations to Menendez’s campaign account and paid for several expensive trips the senator took, in exchange for his help with personal and business dealings involving the government.
Menendez and Melgen have denied any wrongdoing.
A jury was selected last month, and opening arguments in the trial are scheduled to begin Wednesday.
The case is notable not only because the political fate of New Jersey’s senior senator hangs in the balance, but also because it will help define what constitutes corruption and bribery versus a politician assisting a friend or constituent, Dworkin said.
“It’s whole new terrain. Every federal elected official is looking at this case,” he said.
The impending trial has also sparked rampant speculation about Menendez’s future and possible replacements if he is convicted and chooses to resign or is expelled by the Senate.
Much of the intrigue revolves around the timing of his possible departure, since New Jersey law empowers the governor to select a temporary replacement.
Christie will remain in office until early next year and would be expected to choose a Republican to fill the seat, potentially giving the GOP a key vote on several thorny issues such as health care and tax reform.
The replacement would also potentially gain an edge in the 2018 election for the open Senate seat.
Don’t write off Menendez yet, though, as the prosecution has a high bar to clear to convince the jury that the senator acted criminally.
A recent Rutgers Eagleton poll also found that more New Jersey voters still view him favorably.
What other hot races are there?
Burlington County voters will have plenty of decisions to make this fall beyond the governor’s race, with all 120 seats in the Legislature up for grabs, along with two seats on the Burlington County Board of Freeholders and numerous municipal and school board offices.
One major change this year for some voters will be the absence of Republican state Sen. Diane Allen on the 7th District ballots. Arguably the county’s most well-known politician, Allen opted not to seek re-election and will retire in January after 21 years representing the district.
Democratic Assemblyman Troy Singleton is a huge favorite to win Allen’s open Senate seat. In fact, it’s still not clear who will oppose him.
Republican Rob Prisco won the GOP nomination in the June primary, but is expected to drop out because Christie has nominated him to become a worker’s compensation judge. A replacement candidate is expected to be named later this week, when the Burlington County Republican Committee meets.
The committee is also expected to name a replacement for 8th District Assemblywoman Maria Rodriguez-Gregg, who announced Wednesday she would not seek re-election.
The four other candidates running for the two 8th District Assembly seats are Republican incumbent Joe Howarth, Democrats Mary Ann Merlino and former Freeholder Joanne Schwartz, and Ryan T. Calhoun, who is campaigning under the No Status Quo banner.
Incumbent Republican Dawn Marie Addiego is also being challenged by Democrat George Youngkin in the district’s Senate race.
The 8th District is considered relatively secure for the Republicans, although the atmosphere isn’t exactly ideal for GOP candidates given Christie’s low popularity and the possibility that a lopsided win by Murphy in the governor’s race could reverberate down the ballot.
In the 7th District’s Assembly race, incumbent Democrat Herb Conaway and running mate Carol Murphy are heavily favored over Republicans Octavia Scott and Mike Piper.
The freeholder race is expected to be one of the most competitive contests this year, with Democrats Balvir Singh and Tom Pullion challenging Republican incumbents Bruce Garganio and Linda Hughes.
All five freeholder seats are held by Republicans, so control is not at stake. Nonetheless, the county races have grown more competitive in recent years, as the number of registered Democrats continues to grow.
Is the federal government headed for a shutdown?
Members of Congress are returning to Washington with a long list of must-pass legislation, including several appropriations bills needed to fund the government. Failure to approve the spending by Sept. 30 could force much of the government to shut down, a development that Republicans can ill afford given their desire to prove to voters they can effectively govern with majorities in Congress and a Republican in the White House.
The biggest wild card in the mix may be President Donald Trump, who has demanded that Congress fund his proposed wall along the Mexico border, saying at a rally in Phoenix last month that he would be willing to “close down our government” if Congress refuses to appropriate funding for his campaign promise.
Complicating matters could be the growing discord between Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in the wake of the summer collapse of the GOP’s health care reform effort.
There is also plenty more for Congress to do, such as raising the debt ceiling and funding billions of dollars in disaster relief for Hurricane Harvey recovery.
If that wasn’t enough, the National Flood Insurance Program needs to be reauthorized by Sept. 30, and some lawmakers are still pushing to approve some form of health care market stabilization legislation this fall before premium rates are finalized.
Given the high political stakes and conflict between Trump and McConnell, Dworkin surmised that Republican leaders might choose to negotiate with Democrats without the president’s input.
“There’s a real possibility they’ll work together to avoid a shutdown with no input from the president, and effectively dare him to shut down the government because he doesn’t get what he wants,” Dworkin said. “It’s less likely these Republicans will lie down for the president. They might just decide to cut a deal without him.”
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