Gov. Phil Murphy (D) is seeking a second term in Trenton against Republican former state legislator and businessman Jack Ciattarelli.
Where the race stands
While Murphy has consistently polled ahead of Ciattarelli, both candidates are treating the race like the governor could lose it.
Since late summer, Republicans have published internal polling pointing to a single-digit race. Pollsters who only took one recent look at the field found Murphy separated from Ciattarelli by a high single-digit margin, suggesting a race that was closing fast. Monmouth, the only pollster that’s surveyed the race more than twice, has found little movement all year — some Republican gains, but an electorate cooling on Murphy. Their late October poll had Murphy at 50 percent (-1 since September) and Ciattarelli 39 percent (+1).
This race is shaping up to be a test of whether Democrats can hold onto their suburban gains of the past few years even while governing on the left.
A first-time candidate who become a multimillionaire at Goldman Sachs, Murphy won handily in 2017 and began enacting the liberal agenda he ran on. Restoring Planned Parenthood funding and rejoining an interstate climate compact were quick and easy; a “millionaire’s tax” finally made it through the Democratic legislature last year.
Not everything in the agenda was popular — Democrats lost two legislative seats in the 2019 off-year election — but Murphy, like most governors, surged in popularity during the coronavirus pandemic. This year’s election loomed as a familiar contest between a Democrat running on what he has delivered and a Republican promising to slash property taxes and make the state friendlier for business.
Murphy is portraying Ciattarelli, who cut a moderate image in the legislature, as a right-wing acolyte of Donald Trump who would transform a reliably Democratic state.
“I feel sometimes my opponent is running for governor of Texas,” Murphy said of Ciattarelli at a September debate, warning that Ciattarelli would reverse New Jersey’s gun safety laws.
Ciattarelli said attempts paint him as Trump-like were a distraction. After Murphy mentioned Trump just twice in that debate, Ciattarelli said that anyone taking a shot of liquor whenever the governor mentioned the ex-president should “stop real soon because they’re going to be bombed.”
“I think he knows that this race is very, very close, and it is,” Ciattarelli said in an interview. “That’s why he continues to use Trump as a campaign tool. It’s why he’s on TV saying I want to take away women’s access to health care, or I want to take away a woman’s right to abortion.”
The Republican calls the governor an “anti-woman” impostor who is trying to transform his adopted state into California, from high taxes financing a robust welfare state to a 2020 decision to let municipalities remove statues of Christopher Columbus.
In both New Jersey and Virginia, Democrats have liberally invoked Jan. 6. Murphy has relentlessly attacked Ciattarelli for appearing at a pre-Jan. 6 “Stop the Steal” rally in the state, which Ciattarelli says he attended without knowing the theme. “Confederate flags, white supremacists and Jack Ciattarelli,” says a narrator in one of Murphy’s ads, before it cuts to footage of Trump supporters breaking into the Capitol.
Murphy’s popularity has shifted dramatically, in multiple directions, since Ciattarelli launched his campaign 21 months ago. The Republican goal, which got easier as the delta variant bit down on the East Coast, was to bring Murphy down to earth after he got a boost for his handling of the coronavirus. The governor’s approval rating has dipped back into the 50s, and while most voters still approve of his job performance, a poll last week found them almost perfectly divided on whether the state was moving in the “right direction.”
A dynamic that played out in California’s recall election is playing out in New Jersey, with supermajorities of voters favoring vaccine and mask mandates, but fewer voters approving of the governor’s performance overall. But the Republican nominee trails on too many issues to appear to be able to capitalize on that, and some voters who are unhappy with how things are going say they will stick with Murphy.
In an interview, Murphy speculated that slower economic growth, a result of the pandemic and supply chain issues, has complicated matters for his approval ratings.
Trump remains unpopular in New Jersey. Mask and vaccine mandates in schools remain widely popular. Ciattarelli is trying to make the election about something else — mostly, about slashing the state’s tax rates and attracting businesses. Republicans are confident that they are winning over some voters who rejected Murphy’s opponent four years ago, and even rejected Trump last year, thanks to a nominee who, as he tells audiences, has gotten a coronavirus vaccine and never got the endorsement of the National Rifle Association.
Democrats, Ciattarelli said, were creating a winnable election for a new Republican coalition — he simply needed to get the right people to listen.
Murphy noted in his Trailer interview that there are 1 million more registered Democrats in New Jersey than registered Republicans. He just needs Democrats to realize that the race could be lost, he said.
“That is our biggest concern,” he said. “Our team is a lot bigger than their team. If our team shows up, we win this thing. If our team does not show up, it’s a coin flip.”
Here’s what the candidates are saying about each other over the airwaves.
Phil Murphy, “Repeated.” The voice of President Donald Trump starts this spot that launched in early October: “Children are almost immune from this disease.” Trump made that claim on “Fox & Friends” 14 months ago, and Ciattarelli said that “children are not vulnerable to this virus” one year later, arguing that mask mandates in schools would not be necessary. This ads hit him for that quote, part of the ongoing Democratic polarization of the vaccine and mask issue, which polls well in the state.
Jack Ciattarelli, “Not A Priority.” In August, Ciattarelli reminded voters of political problems that Murphy was fighting off before the pandemic began. Two years ago, a former Murphy campaign volunteer named Katie Brennan accused a Murphy strategist of rape, and an investigation found that Murphy’s aides were slow to respond. She settled with the Democrat and the state for $1 million 15 months ago, and this ad plays back her public testimony to state legislators, which led to that settlement. Brennan herself was not enthused. “I was not asked,” she told NJ Spotlight. “It looks like a tacit endorsement of the campaign, which is not my intention.”