Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy survived a closer-than-expected race to win a second term in New Jersey, NBC News projected Wednesday, offering more proof that Republicans are gaining ground in blue states as the 2022 midterm elections approach.
Murphy fended off a challenge from GOP nominee Jack Ciattarelli, a businessman and former state legislator who campaigned on lowering property taxes and relaxing Covid-19 restrictions. He is the state’s first Democratic governor to be re-elected in more than 40 years.
The thin margin — combined with Republican Glenn Youngkin’s victory in the Virginia governor’s race — indicates trouble for President Joe Biden and Democrats nationally, members of both parties said Wednesday. Biden and congressional Democrats have struggled to pass a legislative agenda. And the results in New Jersey and Virginia suggest that voters aren’t moved by broad-brush efforts to link all Republicans to former President Donald Trump.
“I was surprised, but not shocked,” former Sen. Robert Torricelli, D-N.J., told NBC News. “The Democratic Party in New Jersey, like the national party, has strayed at some distance from its base. These are the kinds of corrections that take place when a party strays from its base.”
Black voters are key to that base, Torricelli added, but Democrats have had trouble keeping intact a coalition that also includes moderate white working-class and Catholic voters. He worries the party has moved too far left on immigration and that the inability to move forward on infrastructure spending has further alienated once-reliable Democrats.
“It may not be fair to Phil Murphy, but it's the reality of politics,” Torricelli said. “With the defeat of Donald Trump and election of Joe Biden, I think people expected something different. This has been a devastating several months to the Democratic Party, beginning in Afghanistan through the failure to pass the infrastructure bill and the sense that no one is in charge in Washington.”
The chaotic withdrawal of U.S. military forces from Afghanistan has been one inflection point for voters. And while a bipartisan infrastructure bill has cleared the Senate, it has stalled in the House, where progressives have sought to use it as leverage while seeking moderates’ support for Biden’s more expansive Build Back Better program to address the social safety net. Meanwhile, Biden’s job approval rating has dropped to 42 percent, according to a recent NBC News poll.
The last Democratic governor to win re-election in New Jersey was Brendan Byrne in 1977. The last time the incumbent president’s party also won the state’s gubernatorial race was in 1985, when Republican Gov. Thomas Kean was re-elected during the Reagan administration.
Speaking to supporters Wednesday night in Asbury Park, Murphy referenced Byrne's re-election by saying, "You know, we just had the most New Jersey experience: I was on my way someplace, and it took us longer to get there than we planned. As a matter of fact, some might say it took 44 years to get here."
In his victory speech, Murphy touted an increased minimum wage, expanded paid family leave and greater access to child care from his first four years in the governor's mansion.
"If you want to know what the future looks like, folks, come to New Jersey," he said. "If you want to understand where America is heading, look to New Jersey."
Murphy, who won with 56 percent of the vote in 2017, ran on accomplishments from his first term, which included passing paid sick leave, a $15 minimum wage and state-funded community college and pre-kindergarten. On the campaign trail, the governor attempted to tie Ciattarelli to former Trump and the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, citing his attendance at a "Stop the Steal" rally last November. Murphy also painted his opponent as supportive of restricting abortion access, weakening voting laws and curtailing Covid-19 restrictions.
Biden won New Jersey with 57 percent of the vote. Polls consistently showed Murphy leading in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 1 million registered voters.
“I think we underestimated the headwinds that Phil Murphy faced,” said Ben Dworkin, director of the Rowan Institute for Public Policy & Citizenship in Glassboro, New Jersey.
Ciattarelli promised to reduce property taxes — New Jersey has one of the highest rates in the nation, averaging $9,100 per household — and repeatedly criticized Covid-related mandates supported by Murphy. The GOP nominee said that while he himself was vaccinated, he believed the decision should be voluntary and that masks should not be required for students in schools.
Unlike in Virginia, where Youngkin’s focus on school curriculum and warnings about the teaching of critical race theory stood out, observers of the New Jersey race saw no single issue dominate the campaign. But several suggested that a past Murphy assertion — “if you’re a one-issue voter and tax rate is your issue, we’re probably not your state” — hurt the governor.
“The Republicans did a devastating ad on it,” Torricelli said.
Murphy, who last year signed a state budget that increased taxes on wealthy residents and businesses, vowed that he would not raise rates if elected to a second term.
Trump appeared to be a nonfactor. Where in Virginia he enthusiastically endorsed Youngkin and quickly claimed credit for the GOP victory Tuesday night, the former president never backed Ciattarelli. His absence helped Ciattarelli dodge Murphy’s attempts to tie them closely together.
“One of the big losers,” said Dworkin, “is Donald Trump, because Jack Ciattarrelli basically showed how you can win or almost win without Donald Trump. No endorsement. No nothing.”
Mike DuHaime, a GOP strategist who ran former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s successful campaigns, said the results show that Democrats “don’t have Trump to run against anymore.”
“Voters care about the future, not the past,” DuHaime added.
A former Trump adviser, who requested anonymity to speak candidly, saw the results in Virginia and New Jersey as a broader endorsement of Trump’s policies, if not Trump himself.
“It is now obvious,” the former adviser said, that the 2020 election was a rejection of “Trump’s personality.” This week “appears to be a complete rejection of the Democratic agenda.”