Under the first Democratic governor, New Jersey took a very liberal turn. Phil Murphy increased income taxes for the wealthy, expanded voting rights, and tightened the state's gun laws. This is a marked departure from Chris Christie, the Republican who served two terms advocating more moderate policies.
On Nov. 2, Murphy's agenda will appear on the ballot. Voters will decide whether to elect Jack Ciattarelli or give him another term. Murphy's history is not necessarily favorable: New Jersey hasn’t reelected a Democrat governor in 40 years and hasn’t elected a governor of the same party as President in 30 years.
Murphy stated in an interview that "it's one the major, animating reasons we're running like 10 points behind." "We don't take anything for granted. History has shown that this year can be very unpredictable in politics.
Murphy has some significant advantages. He leads in public polls, has raised more money that Ciattarelli and New Jersey has 1,000,000 more registered Democratic voters than Republicans. He is also welcoming former President Barack Obama and President Joe Biden to New Jersey to promote his spending plan.
Although the race has national implications it has received less attention than Virginia’s highly-publicized governor's race. In a state where Biden beat Trump by almost 16 points last year, Murphy's loss would be shocking. This would raise questions about the possibility that Trump's former supporters, the moderate voters, are returning to the Republican Party.
New Jersey's left-leaning turn was years in the making. Since 1992, every presidential election in the state has been won by Democrats. Since Clifford Case's 1972 election, the state has not elected a Republican senator to the U.S. Senate. However, governor's races are always in the mix for the GOP. Two terms have been won by the last three Republicans to be elected governor.
Ciattarelli stated in an interview that "my focus is solely New Jersey." "To win as Republican, you have to focus on what's bothering New Jerseyans, and that's exactly how I've done the past 22 months."
Public polls indicate that Murphy received high marks from voters for his COVID-19 response, even though New Jersey was among the worst-hit states at its inception. Nearly 35% of New Jersey's nearly 21,000 deaths were caused by nursing homes and veterans homes. Murphy began holding daily news conferences on the pandemic and now holds two every week. Murphy ordered that all non-essential businesses close down as soon as possible during the pandemic. This included restaurants, theaters, and most retail shops. Social distancing encouraged and masks were required. Schools were closed and moved to remote areas.
"Many people are very pleased with the way he handled COVID-19. "The numbers are very clear," Republican State Senator Michael Testa admitted.
Some Republicans worry that Trump's popularity could cause Ciattarelli to lose his support. Ciattarelli, who was a bruising candidate in June's primary, has sounded more moderate since then, when he spoke about his support of Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion, and allowed immigrants without legal status to obtain driver's licenses.
He has been promoting his credentials as an accountant, founder of a small company, while running in Democratic-leaning areas as well as GOP strongholds.
Ciattarelli also had to reconcile the Trump faction with the traditional GOP wing. This has meant Ciattarelli calling for lower property taxes (a perennial New Jersey issue) and denouncing COVID-19 restrictions. It has also required him to answer questions about his appearance in a rally called "Stop the Steal", a reference Trump's false claims of stealing the 2020 election. Ciattarelli claimed that he did not know the rally was centered on Trump's false claims.
When Ciattarelli was asked if he would support Trump's campaigning, Ciattarelli replied that he does his own campaigns and isn’t interested in endorsements. He also stated that he believes Biden was legitimately elected.
Jon Bramnick, Assembly Republican leader, stated that it was very difficult for candidates to be successful if the wind is blowing against their backs. "And New Jersey is definitely more Democratic."
Shavonda Sumter is a Democratic Assembly member who chairs the Legislative Black Caucus. She said that the push for progressive policies such as early in-person voter registration and expanded vote via mail started at least a decade ago. Christie vetoed these policies and they became law when Murphy became governor.
Sumter believes that 2020 will be the turning point in the national reckoning about racial injustice. This will follow the police killing of George Floyd. According to her, Democrats have benefited politically from whites' increased awareness of the importance of race in politics.
She said, "Folks woke awake and realized that this fight is not over."
Toby Sanders, a Trenton resident, attended the Murphy gun control rally. He believes this year's governor's race is more than a state race.
It's a beacon for the nation. Sanders said that it is a good foundation on which to build.
State and local issues are important for other voters.
Mike Gardner, a retired attorney and municipal party official, stated that his number one issue was getting rid of high property taxes. He backs Ciattarelli.
Jim Arakelian is a retired real estate agent and law enforcement officer. He said that he doubts Murphy's respect for police officers, citing the release of certain police disciplinary records. He is also skeptical about media coverage and polling, citing Trump's surprise win in 2016 and his doubtful victory.
"Polls can easily be skewed however the press wants," stated Arakelian who was at a Ciattarelli campaign stop in a New Milford pizzeria.
Some Democratic voters, while skeptical of polls in their own ways, don't want to take them as a given.
"America is in contested territory right now. Sanders stated that there is a silent and loud battle going on.