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N.J. Governor Is Trailing GOP Challenger in Bid for Re-Election

· Nov 2, 2021
With 98% of precincts reporting, Ciattarelli was leading Murphy, 49.7% to 49.6% as of 2:30 a.m. Eastern Time, according to the Associated Press. The closeness of the race -- less than 1,700 vo ...

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New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy is locked in a tight race with Republican challenger Jack Ciattarelli in his bid for a second term.

With 98% of precincts reporting, Ciattarelli was leading Murphy, 49.7% to 49.6% as of 2:30 a.m. Eastern Time, according to the Associated Press. The closeness of the race -- less than 1,700 votes separated them out of more than 2.3 million counted so far -- surprised some Democrats already reeling from a loss in Virginia. In recent polls, Murphy had led Ciattarelli by as many as 11 percentage points.

“We have sent a message to the people of New Jersey,” Ciattarelli said Tuesday night. “We’ve sent a message to the entire country. Every single time it’s gone too far off track, the people of this state have pushed, pulled and prodded it right back where it needs to be.”

New Jersey leans Democratic, but voters frustrated by the state’s high taxes have kept governors from that party to single terms for more than four decades. Murphy also had to contend with President Joe Biden’s declining approval ratings in New Jersey.

“I’m feeling good, we’re going to count every vote,” Murphy said after he gave a brief speech to the crowd gathered in Asbury Park. Ciattarelli also was optimistic: “As soon as we can declare unequivocally, we will begin to fix this state,” he said in Bridgewater.

Murphy, 64, took office in 2018 with a focus on progressive issues like raising the minimum wage and legalizing recreational marijuana. During his term he also expanded paid family leave, restored women’s health funding and gave free tuition to lower-income college students. But it was his leadership during the Covid-19 outbreak in early 2020 that boosted opinions of his job performance above 70% in polls.

Eighteen months later, Murphy’s standing has declined, but he maintains positive approval. 

“There’s no guide from history to help predict what a Democratic governor’s second term would look like,” John Weingart, director of Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University, said in an interview.

Ciattarelli, 59, a former state lawmaker, was little known to voters in early 2021 and trailed Murphy in polls by as much as 26 points. He was able to whittle the margin with campaign ads hammering Murphy over the state’s expensive cost of living and record spending, and by capitalizing on some residents’ frustration with mask and vaccine mandates.

New Jersey has the highest property taxes among U.S. states. At the same time, residents are wealthier than the national average, with a median household income of $85,751. Murphy, a former Goldman Sachs Group Inc. executive, has insisted New Jerseyans are willing to pay higher taxes as long as they get “value” for their money.

For Liz Roan, of Camden County, “Covid response and taxes” were some of her top concerns. Roan, 36, said she voted for Murphy and described herself on Tuesday as being “quite the supporter of higher taxes” because she likes to see good public schools and safe communities.

Both candidates sought to appeal to the more than 2 million registered New Jersey voters who are unaffiliated with their parties.

Murphy focused on middle-class residents. He pushed a millionaire’s tax through the Democratic-legislature in 2020, using the money to provide $500 rebate checks this year to 760,000 families making as much as $150,000 a year. Other initiatives included funding for child care and preschool, expanded early voting and clean energy proposals.

“In a way he is almost the victim of his success in that regard, because he delivered on all those promises.” Micah Rasmussen, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University said in an interview. “You may not have loved that he delivered on those promises if you weren’t particularly a progressive voter.” 

Dominic Nicosia, 36, of Asbury Park, said he was initially skeptical of Murphy, but “the main thing that he has done to sway me was his response to Covid.”

In suburban Bridgewater, Cynthia Richards, 44, said that raising the minimum wage and making college affordable for New Jersey residents were some of her favored actions from Murphy during his first term, and she hopes to “see that pattern continue.”

New Jersey and Virginia are the only U.S. states holding races for governor this year. Republican Glenn Youngkin defeated Democrat Terry McAuliffe in Virginia’s closely watched race on Tuesday, dealing a blow to Biden and Democrats’ hopes to keep control of Congress in next year’s midterm elections.

Murphy has tried to cast Ciattarelli as part of the Trump camp by highlighting the former Republican assemblyman’s appearance at a “Stop the Steal” rally. Ciattarelli has sought to distance himself from the former president and strike a more moderate tone around hot-button issues like abortion and vaccination. While Ciattarelli supports vaccination and Roe v. Wade, he rejects mandates and abortions after the seventh month of pregnancy.

“If Democrats prevail here on Tuesday, it’s going to be an indication that Democrats are not as wounded as Republicans are trying to make them out to be,” Rasmussen said. 

New Jersey was one of the first states to get hit hard by Covid-19 and the virus spread rapidly in the most densely populated U.S. state. The pandemic put Murphy on the national stage, as he held daily briefings and closed schools and businesses.

While the lockdowns helped control the spread, the state has had one of the highest death rates in the nation -- more than 300 per 100,000 residents. As of Oct. 28, nearly 28,000 Mew Jersey residents have died from Covid-19.

Murphy was criticized for the high death toll in long-term care facilities along with former Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo, who resigned in August over sexual-harassment allegations. Murphy sought to distinguish himself from Cuomo, saying his administration had instructed home operators to keep Covid-19 patients separate from other residents.

Ciattarelli scored some points with residents tired of pandemic restrictions.

Michelle Haynberg, a Bridgewater resident of 27 years, cited her concern about vaccine mandates as one of the top reasons she was against Murphy. The governor has denied Republican accusations that he was waiting until after the election to impose mandates, saying any decision would be based on science and data, not politics.

“I’m really looking for no vaccine mandates even though I’m vaccinated and pro-vaccine,” said Haynberg, 53. “I don’t want to see what’s happened in some of the other states where we’re short on police officers and nurses” as a result of a pushed mandate, she said.