(CNN) — New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy has become the first Democratic governor in more than four decades to win reelection in the Garden State, CNN projects Wednesday, narrowly surviving a closer-than-expected race that dragged well past Election Day.
Murphy’s victory over Republican nominee Jack Ciattarelli, albeit slim, defied the state’s trend of voting in the party out of the White House in its off-year gubernatorial contests. Virginia — the only other with odd-year gubernatorial elections — held to that historical pattern on Tuesday, electing Republican Glenn Youngkin in a resounding blow to Democrats who had made recent gains in the state. But like Virginia, the results in New Jersey — another state that President Joe Biden carried by double digits in 2020 — are raising alarms for Democrats who will be fighting to hold onto the suburbs in next year’s midterm elections.
Biden defeated Donald Trump by nearly 16 points in the Garden State. Polling in the gubernatorial race had suggested the results could be narrower, but as Tuesday night progressed it became clear that Murphy had dramatically underperformed the president, despite having more positive approval ratings in the state than Biden.
Like Democrats did in Virginia, New Jersey Democrats and the Murphy campaign consistently sought to tie the Republican nominee to Trump, who remains deeply unpopular in the state. But those sentiments, some Democrats fretted, might have been undercut by Biden’s sinking statewide approval ratings. (He was 6 points underwater in a Monmouth University poll before the election.)
Republicans in New Jersey also followed a similar playbook as in Virginia, with Ciattarelli — a businessman and former state lawmaker — keeping Trump at arm’s length and instead hammering Murphy over taxes and what he argued were the dire effects of the Democrat’s pandemic response on businesses.
Murphy’s narrow victory may be seen as a verdict on his and other Democratic leaders’ commitments to mask and vaccine mandates, which the governor has championed in a state that has suffered about 28,000 COVID-19 deaths.
Before the race was called, a Murphy adviser told CNN that, while it is too early to diagnose in detail the dip in Democratic enthusiasm compared to his 2017 election, robust turnout in areas that opposed some of the governor’s stricter measures might have complicated his path.
“You saw astronomical turnout in places like Ocean (County) where people were up in arms on masks and vaccines,” the adviser said. “What you see is that people who are upset about vaccines and masks were more likely to vote on that than the people who were happy with his progress.”
The final Monmouth University survey of the race had shown Murphy with leads ranging from 8 to 14 points, depending on different models of who came out to vote. Those figures represented a modest narrowing of the race, in which taxes — an issue that Ciattarelli led on — were listed as the top issue. But Murphy’s advantage on the question of who voters trust more to handle the pandemic was significantly higher, 45% to 26%, a gap that stayed mostly consistent since the summer. The Democrat also enjoyed a sizable lead on a question that roiled the Virginia race — education and schools — leading Ciattarelli by 15 points.
But the Monmouth survey also picked up on an enthusiasm gap that may have hurt Murphy, with 38% of self-identified Republicans saying they were more enthusiastic than usual to vote this election compared to 24% of self-identified Democrats.
Murphy was saved, in the end, by the overwhelming advantage registered Democrats enjoy over registered Republicans — more than a million in New Jersey, though voters there have shown a willingness to support moderate GOP candidates, like two-term former Govs. Christie Todd Whitman and, before Murphy’s 2017 election, Chris Christie.
Murphy aides remained confident throughout the campaign, and on election night, that the governor’s popularity would carry him to a second term. His approval ratings had consistently outpaced the President’s — 52% compared to Biden’s 43% in the Monmouth poll.
“We’re going to get reelected — or not — on our own weight here,” a Murphy adviser told CNN before the polls closed. Still, the governor kept Biden close, welcoming him to the campaign trail and staying in contact as late as the eve of the vote, when the President — in the middle of a foreign trip — called and had a conversation with the governor, according to a source familiar with the discussion.
Murphy, a former Goldman Sachs executive and ambassador to Germany who previously served as the Democratic National Committee’s finance chair, also stumped alongside a who’s who of national Democratic heavyweights. Biden, former president Barack Obama and independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont all headlined events for him to try to drive out base Democratic voters.
Obama, speaking in Newark last month, zeroed in on Ciattarelli for having previously addressed a “Stop the Steal” rally, then later claiming he was unaware of the event’s focus. “Apparently Phil’s opponent says, well, he didn’t know it was a rally to overturn the results of the last election. Brother, come on,” Obama said. “When you are standing in front of a sign that says ‘Stop the Steal,’ and there’s a guy in the crowd waving a Confederate flag, you know this isn’t a neighborhood barbecue.”
Ciattarelli’s camp, in response, pointed to his past statements affirming that Biden won the election — remarks he was attacked over by other Republicans during the gubernatorial primary.
Ciattarelli sought to downplay Trump-fueled conspiracy theories over election fraud — at least as it applied to his own prospects.
“Don’t let anybody stay home because they think we can’t win or because it’s rigged,” Ciattarelli said at an event last week. “It’s not rigged here in New Jersey. We can win this race.”
Ciattarelli did not name Trump, who did not appear on the trail in New Jersey, but the remark underscored the difficult balance Republican candidates have to strike in states Biden won to get Trump diehards to the polls without alienating suburban swing voters turned off by the former President’s behavior and rhetoric. Youngkin’s victory in Virginia and Ciattarelli’s narrow loss in New Jersey may have helped lay a blueprint for GOP downballot candidates next year.
At their second debate, in mid-October, a moderator pressed Ciattarelli over his view of Trump and whether he would accept the former President’s support and campaign alongside him. The Republican nominee, who has been critical of Trump but backed him last year, suggested he had no plans to call in the former President.
“I go out there and campaign on my own,” Ciattarelli responded. “I’ll win my own election.”
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