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Parties pick their candidates to replace Christie in low-turnout N.J. primary

New Jersey took its first step on Tuesday to replace Gov. Chris Christie, even if most voters chose not to have a say in the decision.

Statewide primaries are traditionally low turnout affairs and Tuesday’s was likely to be no exception as a large part of the electorate remains unfamiliar with the major candidates.

Polls close at 8 p.m.

The anticipated low turnout doesn’t make the contest any less important. New Jersey’s governorship — the only statewide elected office aside from lieutenant governor and the two U.S. Senate seats — is one of the most, if not the most, powerful in the nation. Tuesday’s results will set up one of the nation’s two first gubernatorial contests since President Donald Trump took office (Virginia’s is the other).

Even though Democrats are heavily favored to win the governorship in November, in part because of Christie’s deep unpopularity, the more competitive primary contest has been on the Republican side, where Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno and Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli have been locked in a bitter battle to replace a governor who has lost favor even with much of his own party. Also running in the GOP primary are Nutley Commissioner Steve Rogers, a Trump loyalist, actor Joseph “Rudy” Rullo and engineer Hirsh Singh.

Guadagno, the state’s first lieutenant governor, has focused her campaign on “auditing” Trenton — above and beyond the role of the current state auditor — and a $1.5 billion plan to cut property taxes for middle- and working-class homeowners, a plan she says would be partly paid for with savings from the audit.

Ciattarelli has highlighted the state’s rocky economic recovery and 11 credit downgrades during the Christie administration and has cast Guadagno as a continuation of the Christie administration.

On Tuesday, he said he felt”very, very good” about his chances.

“We need to move on from the Christie-Guadagno era,” Ciattarelli said outside his polling place in Hillsborough. “My candidacy provides a new direction, new message, new messenger. “What I feel confident about is our game plan. We’ve worked very, very hard over the past eight months. You want to put yourself in a position to win. I think we’ve done that,” he said.

Christie spent most of the primary refusing to endorse a Republican to succeed him. But on Tuesday morning, he cast his vote for Guadagno.

“I think the biggest endorsement you can give somebody is your vote. I’ve worked with her for eight years and I believe she’s the best person in the Republican primary to represent the party in the fall and to retain the governorship,” Christie said after voting is his hometown of Mendham.

On the Democratic side, Phil Murphy, a former Goldman Sachs executive and U.S. ambassador to Germany during the Obama administration, is the prohibitive favorite. The other candidates — former Clinton administration staffer Jim Johnson, Assemblyman John Wisniewski, state Sen. Raymond Lesniak, activist Bill Brennan and Tenafly Councilman Mark Zinna — have struggled to break through in a race where Murphy has gained the support of all 21 county Democratic organizations.

The Democratic candidates have differed little on policy, with each presenting a liberal and anti-Trump platform. Murphy’s most prominent campaign plank is to create a state-run bank that would service student loans and invest New Jersey’s pension money. His opponents have attacked him for his work at Goldman Sachs, while Murphy has taken on an anti-Wall Street tone.

At his polling place Tuesday morning in Middletown, Murphy didn’t project an aura of inevitability. He said his team was concerned about low turnout, and that the “choppy weather” wasn’t helping.

Despite spending more than $20 million on the primary, most of it from his own pocket, a Stockton University poll found 40 percent of New Jersey voters were still unfamiliar with Murphy as of late May. Guadagno fared only slightly better, despite being lieutenant governor for eight years; 31 percent of those surveyed in the Stockton poll said they were unfamiliar with her.

It hasn’t helped that Trump has taken up so much of the voters’ attention spans.

“We’ve got a lot of undecideds, a lot of obsession with Donald Trump and what’s going on in Washington, and probably less than there should be in terms of attention on what’s going on in New Jersey,” Murphy told reporters.

That could actually help Murphy in the general election, should he prevail tonight. Trump’s approval rating in New Jersey was 28 percent, according to a Fairleigh Dickinson University poll released March 30.

Other Democratic candidates spent the final hours of the campaign making last-minute digital pushes and, in one case, cracking a joke at the expense of Christie.

Johnson, a Montclair attorney who came out of obscurity to run a surprisingly well-funded campaign, released a 3 1/2-minute web video on Tuesday about his government and advocacy experience titled “A Lifetime of Public Service.”

Wisniewski seized on boil water advisory in the city of Trenton, saying on Twitter that it “speaks volumes about how New Jersey is run” when the state capital’s water may not be safe to drink while there are “pet projects that only benefit a few.”

On Monday, the assemblyman from Middlesex County also made a joke at Christie’s expense, referring to a famous picture of the governor at a charity softball game in 2015. “If elected governor I promise not to wear tight white baseball pants on TV,” he wrote.

Katie Jennings and Katherine Landergan contributed to this report.

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