New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy’s name is on the lips of Democrats around the country as a potential 2024 candidate should President Joe Biden decide not to seek a second term — and he’s not doing much to dissuade the talk.
But as Murphy tries to burnish his image as someone who’s putting progressive policies to work, he faces a major obstacle: A skittish Legislature led by members of his own party.
He’s pushing more measures to stiffen the state’s already strict gun laws. He wants to further open up abortion access. The response from fellow Democrats has been muted, if not an outright “no.” The legislative leaders, simply put, are worried about feeding a Republican resurgence.
“I think they realized after last year that the mood is different than it was just two years ago,” state Sen. Dick Codey, a former governor who’s often allied with Murphy, said in an interview.
Elected a year into Donald Trump’s presidency in 2017, Murphy held New Jersey out as a beacon for alienated progressives. After Trump was defeated in 2020, Murphy turned his focus to contrasting state policies with the conservative U.S. Supreme Court, which on Thursday struck down a key New York gun law and on Friday voted to overturn Roe v. Wade.
Murphy called the decision to overturn Roe “backwards and appalling.”
Murphy’s political allies, including his wife, Tammy, are spending millions of dollars to boost his image in the state with a super PAC and a dark money nonprofit group, which many view as a preview of the governor’s national ambitions. He’s also taking the helm of the Democratic Governors Association in 2023 for the second time.
Murphy can’t seek a consecutive third term and, as a result, is free to focus on social issues that play to a national Democratic audience in early primary states. Members of the New Jersey Legislature, all of whom are up for reelection in 2023 under a new district map that gives Republicans their best shot in 20 years at winning control, don’t have that luxury.
Murphy last year became the first Democratic governor in New Jersey to win reelection since 1977. But he did it by a far smaller margin than most expected, winning by just 3 points. The Democrat-led Legislature fared worse, suffering a net loss of seven seats in both houses, including the shocking upset of former Senate President Steve Sweeney. That cut down the party’s majorities to 24-16 in the state Senate and 46-34 in the General Assembly.
The Legislature did pass a bill expanding abortion access at the end of the last session in January, but with only two votes to spare — and only after paring it down substantially from the bill Murphy and abortion advocates had been pushing. The law mainly writes abortion rights already recognized by state courts into New Jersey law, with few practical measures to increase access.
Anticipating Friday’s abortion ruling, Murphy has been pushing for a new bill with provisions that were deleted from the measure he signed, including mandating abortion insurance coverage, eliminating out-of-pocket expenses for the procedure and codifying a state regulation that expands the types of medical providers who can perform abortions.
But it’s going nowhere. The ouster of Sweeney, a fiscally-conservative Democrat who often feuded with Murphy, was welcomed within the Murphy administration and by progressives. But the new Senate president, Nick Scutari, publicly blamed Democrats’ positions that were “too off mainstream” for their legislative losses.
“We passed what we could pass when I was there. Now you have one less member [in the Senate],” Sweeney said in a phone interview. “The Senate president said it correctly: It’s been settled. We settled it at the last session. That’s as far as we can get with it, and I think we actually got it in the right place.”
Murphy is also pushing gun regulations and meeting similar hesitancy from fellow Democrats.
He said on Friday he wants to bar guns in numerous settings, including public transit, places that serve alcohol, hospitals, day care centers, stadiums and government buildings, which would require new legislation. He also announced a more immediate executive order that requires state government agencies to begin reviewing laws and regulations that would allow them to restrict where guns can be taken.
“Allowing ordinary citizens to carry concealed weapons into stores and malls, on mass transit, in day care centers and hospitals, in polling places or in bars and restaurants does not make us safer,” Murphy said during a press conference in Trenton. “A right to carry a concealed weapon is, in actuality, a recipe for tragedy.”
Scutari was initially hesitant to advance several gun control measures Murphy proposed that had been stalled under Sweeney, relenting on some of the bills only late in budget negotiations this month, but still refusing to consider a bill to raise the purchase age on rifles from 18 to 21.
Both Scutari and the state Assembly speaker, Democrat Craig Coughlin, oppose moving the abortion access bill, and there’s little appetite in their own caucuses to do so.
“There’s not enough votes,” Scutari recently told reporters.
With abortion, Democratic state lawmakers are concerned about energizing the right wing of an already-volatile electorate ahead of midterms and next year’s state-level election, which is expected to have low turnout. Even former state Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, a Democrat who pushed the abortion access bill before her retirement in January, didn’t see an urgency to go further than the law Murphy signed.
“I believe, in terms of the choice issue, the Legislature did what was urgent and what was the most important. We codified a woman’s right to choose,” she said in a phone interview.
George Norcross, the Democratic power broker from South Jersey, where Democrats took the biggest hit in the Legislature last year, has held two well-attended conclaves in which he went over polling and focus group data. He urged Democrats to focus on taxes, inflation and jobs — a clear direction to avoid social issues.
There are signs Murphy has gotten the same message.
The nonprofit run by his allies, Stronger Fairer Forward, has so far limited its ad spending to New Jersey and focused on property tax relief programs the governor hammered out with the Legislature and the governor’s own pledge, late in his reelection campaign last year, not to raise any more taxes.
But Murphy has continued to push progressive policies on abortion and guns. At one point, he dared legislative leaders to put every gun-related bill introduced, including by conservative lawmakers, up for a vote while accusing Republicans of taking “blood money” and implicitly calling out Democratic legislative leaders for refusing.
This is far from the first time the Legislature’s priorities have conflicted with the governor’s.
Murphy, who ran for office on a pledge to legalize recreational cannabis, couldn’t convince lawmakers to pass a legalization bill. Instead, they kicked the question to voters in the form of constitutional amendment referendum that garnered 68 percent of the vote, winning majorities in almost every New Jersey town.
But even after the referendum was approved, it still took months of painful negotiations for lawmakers to hammer out the actual legalization framework.
“Just, generally speaking, I think the Legislature is more timid than it is conservative,” Weinberg said.
Scutari and Coughlin did not respond to requests for comment.