New Jersey governor’s race gets interesting

Jack Ciattarelli and incumbent Phil Murphy debating.
Photo: Frank Franklin II / AP / Shutterstock

Throughout this calendar year, there has been intense national interest in two gubernatorial contests: the California recall election, which Democrat Gavin Newsom won hands down; and the regular Virginia gubernatorial election, which ends very closely between Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Republican Glenn Youngkin on November 2.

But there’s another gubernatorial election on Nov. 2 that could turn slyly competitive: in New Jersey, where Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy is running for a second term against former Republican state lawmaker Jack Ciattarelli. The race received little attention at the start due to Murphy’s big lead in early polls and the state’s increasingly Democratic advantage (Joe Biden gained nearly 16 points there in 2020, the fourth consecutive double-digit Democratic victory in what was once a battleground state).

But Murphy’s lead has steadily narrowed in fairly sparse public polls: up to nine points (50-41) among likely voters in a late-September poll of Stockton University, then up to six points (50-44) among the likely voters in a Emerson poll. This latest poll showed that undecided voters also leaned in favor of Ciattarelli. It’s safe to say that while Murphy remains the favorite, an upset isn’t entirely out of the question.

Partisan allegiance to the state aside, Murphy’s big advantage is a modestly positive job approval rating based largely on his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Ciattarelli campaigns primarily on the perennial Republican issue of high property taxes in New Jersey, and the alleged effect of high state and local taxes in general on business development.

Unlike races in California and Virginia, New Jersey does not have the kind of harsh culture war dynamic that has been so evident elsewhere this year. Partly that’s because Ciattarelli is a bit of an old-school Republican from New Jersey who promotes certain abortion rights (although he does support banning abortions after 20 weeks pregnant, four or five weeks before. fetal viability) and is not a big favorite of the National Rifle Association or the MAGA movement. In fact, Ciattarelli gave Donald Trump a big berth (reciprocated, so far, by the former president) and beat two very Trumpy opponents in the June GOP primary. That didn’t stop Murphy from try to tie the republican to the lord and master of his party; Ciattarelli still has to explain a post-election rally in November 2020 where he appeared next to signs saying “Stop the Steal” (he claims he thought the rally was about the 2021 race). And while Ciattarelli has not opposed vaccines or COVID-19 masking, he has opposed the mandates for vaccines and for masking children.

Both candidates agreed to spending limits in exchange for matching public funds, which more or less equalized direct campaign spending, although Murphy has an advantage both in outside aid and in late cash.

Ciattarelli is counting on some sort of backlash against Joe Biden among persuasive voters and possibly depressed turnout among Democrats. The state’s last two Republican governors, Chris Christie (governor from 2010 to 2018) and Christine Todd Whitman (in office from 1994 to 2001), nurtured the same centrist image and won two terms during a Democratic presidency.

If the Republican is successful in upsetting this very blue state, the nationwide overreaction will be powerful, especially if Youngkin wins in Virginia as well. More likely, if Murphy wins but is scared it will be seen as a harbinger for Democrats in 2022, although there is almost no chance New Jersey will vote for a Republican presidential candidate in 2024. : than hasn’t happened since 1988.

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