What to Know
- By what will be a very slim majority, New Jersey voters reelected Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy to a second term, as he got just enough support to top Republican challenger Jack Ciattarelli
- Murphy becomes the first Democrat reelected in 44 years and the first person from the same party of the president to win in the off-off-year election in more than three decades
- The Republican had far surpassed the party's previous nominee four years ago in fundraising and saw the gap in public polls move in his favor -- if only by a few points
Gov. Phil Murphy will just narrowly accomplished his goal of becoming the first Democrat to claim reelection in New Jersey in 44 years, as the Garden State gubernatorial election is projected to come out in his favor over Republican challenger Jack Ciattarelli, according to NBC News and AP projections.
The result comes nearly 24 hours after polls closed on Tuesday. When counting began in the evening, Ciattarelli quickly shot ahead and remained in the lead for much of the night. But the lead slowly went away overnight and into Wednesday.
The race was initially called when a new batch of votes from Republican-leaning Monmouth County increased Murphy’s lead in the evening, and closed the door to a Ciattarelli comeback. Ballots remaining to be counted included a significant number of votes from predominantly Democratic Essex County, along with mail-in votes spread across other counties. Murphy has won the mail-in vote by a wide margin even in Republican leaning counties like Monmouth.
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The 64-year-old governor said he was acutely aware of the political trends, calling them an “animating” force for his reelection effort that spurred him to run as if he were 10 points behind.
In a brief victory speech Wednesday night in Asbury Park's boardwalk convention hall, Murphy alluded to his narrow margin of victory by saying he would “listen to all of New Jersey,” but still emphasized Democratic goals like expanding voting rights, raising taxes on the wealthy and defending abortion rights.
“We shall be judged in the long run not by how we fared in elections, but by what we did as an administration,” Murphy said, quoting Brendan Byrne, the last Democratic governor to be reelected in the state. “Those words will always remind us to always, always, always keep moving forward.”
Ciattarelli spokesperson Stami Williams disputed the call because of the close margin, calling it "irresponsible of the media to make this call when the New Jersey Secretary of State doesn't even know how many ballots are left to be counted."
A win by Murphy breaks some historical trends. No Democrat has won reelection as governor in New Jersey since Brendan Byrne in 1977, and the party opposite the president's has won the New Jersey governorship in every election going back to 1985.
The fact that the race was close to begin with is seen as a bad omen for Democrats for next year's election. The closeness of this race in particular surprised experts, who watched public polls showing Murphy leading comfortably and looked to his party’s registration advantage of more than a million voters.
“If you asked anybody several months ago within the state, I think anyone would have predicted a high double digit landslide for Murphy,” said Ashley Koning, director of the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling.
Murphy had been leading in the polls and had more cash in his coffers than Ciattarelli in the finals days of the race. But the Republican had also far surpassed the party's previous nominee four years ago in fundraising and spent nearly as much as Murphy's campaign. He saw the gap in public polls move in his favor -- if only by a few points.
Voters came out in much higher rates for Ciattarelli this year than they did for his GOP predecessor in 2017.
Murphy built his campaign around the progressive accomplishments he signed into law — like a phased in $15 an hour minimum wage and paid sick leave along with taxes on the wealthy — and brought on Democratic allies, like progressive U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, in to campaign for him.
With a Democrat-led Legislature, Murphy achieved most of the promises he made in his first run four years ago when he vied to succeed Republican Chris Christie. Paid sick leave, taxpayer-financed community college and some pre-K, tighter gun laws, expanded voting access, recreational marijuana, more state aid for schools and a fully funded public pension — all promised and all delivered during the first term. He paid for some of the new state spending with higher taxes on incomes over $1 million.
A proposal for a public bank to finance projects went unfulfilled.
In the closing days of the campaign, to hammer the point home, he appeared alongside U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders at Rutgers University at a rally. He cast the election as critical for holding on to progressive gains made during his first term.
Polls showed Murphy got solid support for his handling of the COVID-19 outbreak, which hit New Jersey hard in early 2020 and resulted in the deaths of more than 25,000 people. About a third of those deaths occurred in nursing and veterans homes. But the state also excelled at getting people vaccinated and was quick to become one of the states with the highest percentages of eligible people to be fully vaccinated.
Murphy is a former Goldman Sachs executive and served as ambassador to Germany under former President Barack Obama, who campaigned for Murphy in the weeks before Election Day.
He has said his next term will be about enacting a Reproductive Freedom Act aimed at codifying Roe v. Wade in the state as well as additional gun control laws and the expansion of taxpayer-financed pre-K for 3-year-olds.
Headwinds facing Democrats, like President Joe Biden's falling approval ratings and congressional Democrats' struggles to enact their agenda didn't factor heavily enough into some experts' pre-election analysis, said Ben Dworkin, the director of Rowan University’s Institute for Public Policy & Citizenship. He counted himself among them.
A spokesperson for Ciattarelli said Wednesday that the campaign was focused on the vote count and said that a possible legal pursuit of a recount was on the table. Murphy also called Wednesday morning for every vote to be counted.
Ciattarelli's campaign seized on comments Murphy made that New Jersey probably isn’t for voters whose top issue is taxes, casting the governor as out of touch with a concern many prioritize.
He also sought support from those who disagreed with Murphy's handling of COVID-19. At a recent campaign rally in Hazlet when someone in the audience asked about mandates, Ciattarelli said there'd be none under his administration — an allusion to mask and vaccination mandates.
He also implicitly criticized critical race theory in schools, saying that “we are not going to teach our children to feel guilty.” Critical race theory is a method of thinking of America’s history through the lens of racism that has become a political lightning rod of the Republican Party.
A lawsuit that was filed Tuesday evening by the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, based on social media posts and local news reports, alleged that dozens of voters were turned away from polls in some places, because electronic tablets used to check in voters struggled to connect to the internet.
The suit, which had sought to extend voting until 9:30 p.m., was denied by the court, the civil rights organization said. A message seeking comment was left with the secretary of state’s office, which oversees elections in the state.
Also on the ballot Tuesday were all 40 seats in the state Senate and all 80 seats in the Assembly. Democrats control both chambers.
Voters are also being asked two questions this year. One asks whether to allow betting on New Jersey college teams or teams from other states whose games are played in New Jersey.
A separate question asks whether organizations that are permitted to hold raffles should be able to keep the money to support themselves.