Although Norcross said he would “do whatever he asks me to do” if Sweeney runs for governor, he also acknowledged the locus of political power rests north of Interstate 95 — where a handful of other potential candidates for governor live and, presumably, would lock up support from leaders of Democratic-rich areas. Sweeney would be expected to secure party backing south of that dividing line, a large swath of the state Norcross has commanded but is far less populated and increasingly running red.
Other possible candidates who would be competing for Democratic Party support to secure the organizational “line” giving them preferred ballot positioning in each county include Reps. Josh Gottheimer of Bergen County and Mikie Sherrill of Essex County. Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop announced his candidacy last month, gaining the support of Hudson County chair Anthony Vainieri. Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin of Middlesex County and Newark Mayor Ras Baraka are also widely seen as possible candidates.
“He’s got to get a line up north,” said one South Jersey Democratic leader who, like others who spoke to POLITICO, was granted anonymity to talk candidly about Sweeney’s prospects.
At this point, Sweeney’s best chances in the north would be in Bergen or Hudson if Gottheimer or Fulop “flame out,” this person said. “Irrespective of those two things happening, it is going to be tough.”
Sweeney and Norcross, a friend since childhood, formed an effective and long-running political alliance that saw Sweeney lead the Senate for a record 12 years. But the stunning defeat of Sweeney and his two Assembly running mates in 2021 was “catastrophic” to the South Jersey political apparatus, Norcross said. It has raised questions ever since whether Sweeney could mount a successful gubernatorial run.
Sweeney declined to comment in detail on his future plans, but has said he’s considering running for governor just as he did seven years ago.
Many different scenarios could play out between now and 2025, and alliances are always subject to change. And Sweeney could benefit from a fracturing of North Jersey Democrats, giving him an opportunity to run as an alternative to progressives such as Fulop.
“New Jersey is a moderate state,” Sweeney said in an interview Monday. “I don’t think the state’s going to get more progressive.”
But as Murphy’s sudden ascendance from long shot to front-runner showed in late 2016, it is a faction of party bosses who wield great influence in who becomes the gubernatorial nominee.
Sweeney and Fulop were both expected to duel for the nomination in the 2017 primary, but they each dropped out before officially declaring. Fulop shelved his plans and endorsed Murphy, who soon gained the endorsements of county leaders in North and Central Jersey, prompting Sweeney’s exit.
The 2025 race would be no different, Democrats say.
“If there wasn’t a path in 2017, what circumstances create a path now?” a Democratic consultant said.
This time around, a few Democratic leaders are seen as key voices in the next primary: Middlesex County chair Kevin McCabe and his close ally Gary Taffet; Senate President Nick Scutari, who is also chair of Union County Democrats; and Sen. Vin Gopal, an influential voice in the state’s fifth-most populous county, Monmouth.
“They decide who the next nominee is going to be,” said one Democrat close to high-level deliberations about 2025. “The one person it can’t be is Sweeney, because of George [Norcross].”
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