MILLBURN, N.J. — Phil Murphy held on to win a second term as governor of New Jersey Wednesday, shaking off President Biden’s sinking approval numbers and late momentum from Republican challenger Jack Ciattarelli in an election that was far closer than Democrats had expected and hurt their down-ballot candidates.
The Associated Press called the race for Mr. Murphy Wednesday evening even as results showed him leading by less than 20,000 votes, 1 percentage point.
The race was closer than anyone expected after polls showed Mr. Murphy with a wider lead heading into Election Day.
Mr. Ciattarelli, a former state assemblyman, earlier Wednesday said he wanted all “legal votes” to be counted and highlighted a stronger-than-expected showing and down-ballot benefits for the GOP. Notably, the second-most powerful elected official in Trenton, Senate President Steve Sweeney, was trailing in his race against truck driver Edward Durr.
The Ciattarelli campaign hinted that it wasn’t ready to concede.
“With the candidates separated by a fraction of a percent out of 2.4 million ballots cast, it’s irresponsible of the media to make this call when the New Jersey secretary of state doesn’t even know how many ballots are left to be counted,” Ciattarelli spokeswoman Stami Williams tweeted.
Mr. Murphy was the only governor seeking reelection in America this year since the Virginia contest featured candidates vying to replace term-limited Gov. Ralph Northam.
Mr. Murphy’s victory broke an odd curse on Garden State Democrats, who for 40 years had failed to reelect one of their governors in the reliably blue state, though the razor-thin margin served as a warning sign for Democrats who saw the Virginia contest go to Republican Glenn Youngkin as party members dither on Mr. Biden’s economic agenda.
Mr. Biden carried New Jersey by 16 points last year.
Mr. Murphy, a former Goldman Sachs executive and U.S. ambassador to Germany, positioned himself as a bold progressive during the campaign, highlighting efforts to lift the minimum wage in the state to $15 per hour by 2024, to boost a robustly funded public-school system and to impose a “millionaire’s tax” to fund health care, education and infrastructure initiatives.
“We cannot afford to go back to the way things used to be when New Jersey only worked for the wealthy and the well-connected at the expense of the middle class,” he said in a get-out-the-vote video Tuesday.
Mr. Murphy was challenged by COVID-19 early in the pandemic, as New Jersey suffered one of the highest death rates in the country. He was faulted for allowing COVID-19 patients to return to nursing homes, though others gave him high marks for his personal touch in recognizing individual victims of the disease.
In the final weeks of the race, the governor appeared alongside Mr. Biden, former President Barack Obama and Sen. Bernard Sanders of Vermont, who hailed the incumbent “one of the most progressive, if not the most progressive, governors in America.”
Yet his double-digit polling lead over the summer shrank to 6-8 points in the final days, as Mr. Biden failed to rally congressional Democrats around social spending and infrastructure bills as Mr. Ciattarelli crisscrossed the state for rallies and diner visits and spent heavily on advertising.
Mr. Ciattarelli also criticized Mr. Murphy for COVID-19 restrictions on businesses and said he supported vaccination but would never mandate it.
Mr. Ciattarelli walloped Mr. Murphy in shore counties and flipped several counties that went Mr. Murphy’s way in 2017, while cutting into the incumbent’s prior margins elsewhere.
Many voters in Millburn — a suburb in Essex County, which counted sluggishly but delivered critical votes for Mr. Murphy — told The Washington Times they were happy with the governor’s management.
“I think he’s kept the state together during the storms and COVID. I think he’s done a good job,” said Bernard Sarrel as he left his polling place at the Casa Colombo Civic Association.
Manuel Silva, who is retired, said he backed the incumbent to maintain the status quo instead of ushering in the unknown.
“Can’t complain,” Mr. Silva said after voting at the Millburn Public Library. “Every time you vote for somebody, you don’t know what he’s gonna do after he gets in. I’d rather stay with the one [who] is there. You don’t know what’s coming.”
Others said they were skittish about the overall environment within the GOP.
“I’m an independent, I have voted Republican in the past for moderate Republicans but I don’t like kind of the nuttiness that is going on and some of the catering to the crazy right wing. There’s a crazy left wing also,” said Michael Esposito, who voted for Mr. Murphy at Casa Colombo.
Mr. Esposito said a member of his family is gay and he didn’t like a comment Mr. Ciattarelli made in early summer when he told potential voters “we’re not teaching sodomy in sixth grade. And we’re going to roll back the LGBTQ curriculum. It goes too far.”
“That really upset me,” Mr. Esposito said.
John Ward, who voted at the same site, bucked the trend around town and said he backed Mr. Ciattarelli.
“He’s more my style, more of what I’m looking for. Appealed to me,” Mr. Ward said.
New Jersey Democrats hadn’t been able to win a second gubernatorial term since 1977, so Mr. Murphy said he was running like he’s “10 points behind” as his opponent blanketed the airwaves with ads and tried to thread the needle between Trump-loving Republicans and moderates in the party.
Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by roughly 1 million in New Jersey, so the governor placed an emphasis on turnout to overwhelm his opponent. He got a closer race than Democrats bargained for, though some see it as a throwback to close contests of the past.
Ross Baker, a politics professor at Rutgers University, said the contest resembled the “pre-Trump map of N.J. with all of the old GOP strongholds — Somerset, Morris, Hunterdon — coming back into the fold.”
“Take Trump out of the picture and the closely fought elections of the past make their return,” he told The Washington Times in an email.
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