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File photo of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie by Gretchen Ertl/Reuters

New Jersey voters go to polls to replace Gov. Chris Christie

TRENTON, N.J. — A former Wall Street executive and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s second-in-command are the leading candidates Tuesday as voters head to the polls to begin choosing who will replace the unpopular Republican governor.

The winners in Tuesday’s primaries will compete in the Nov. 7 general election in one of just two statewide gubernatorial contests in the country this year, along with Virginia, and the first since Republican President Donald Trump took office.

The candidates are little known, even in New Jersey, and are competing as Trump administration developments swamp headlines, spurring the Democratic candidates to lash out at the president and wedging Republicans between an unpopular White House and a GOP governor whom most voters disapprove of.

On the Democratic side, candidates attacked wealthy front-runner Phil Murphy over his time as an executive at Goldman Sachs, comparing him to members of Trump’s administration who also worked there and former Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine, another Goldman Sachs alumnus who, like Murphy, donated to local New Jersey Democratic parties.

“What most New Jerseyans care about are taxes, they care about reforming the pension. They care about the cost of college,” said Brigid Harrison, a political science professor at Montclair State University. “But what the candidates talk about is Mr. Trump and Mr. Corzine, probably not the concerns of most New Jerseyans.”

Murphy, a Middletown resident who served as Barack Obama’s ambassador to Germany after chairing the Democratic National Committee’s finance arm, loaned his campaign more than $16 million.

The race to take the New Jersey governor’s office back from a Republican comes as Democrats nationally weigh whether distancing themselves from Wall Street will help them counter Trump and his populist Republican allies. Murphy blurs the line between establishment and insurgent just as Democrats reckon with whether their best candidates should come from within or outside the traditional party structure.

Murphy faces challenges from former Teaneck firefighter Bill Brennan, one-time Clinton administration Treasury official Jim Johnson, state Sen. Ray Lesniak, Assemblyman John Wisniewski and Tenafly Councilman Mark Zinna.

The top Republican in the race is Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno. She was twice elected on the ticket with the term-limited governor, but has gone to great lengths to try to highlight their differences.

Guadagno’s rivals are Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli, Nutley Commissioner Steve Rogers, Ocean County landscape business owner and actor Joseph “Rudy” Rullo and Atlantic County engineer Hirsh Singh.

Whoever wins on Tuesday, Democrats are favored in the general election, in part because of an 800,000 voter registration advantage and because of political headwinds stemming from Christie’s and Trump’s unpopularity in New Jersey.

Voters also will be picking between Democratic and Republican candidates in eight state Senate and 15 Assembly contests. The full 120-member Legislature is on the ballot in November. Democrats control both chambers.

New Jersey polls are open until 8 p.m.

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