TRENTON, N.J. – Paid sick leave. Taxpayer-funded community college. A phased-in $15 minimum wage.
New Jersey has taken a decidedly liberal shift under first-term Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy, increasing income taxes on the wealthy, expanding voting rights and tightening the state's already restrictive gun laws. It’s a notable change from his predecessor, Republican Chris Christie, who spent two terms pushing more moderate policies.
Murphy's agenda will be on the ballot on Nov. 2, when voters will decide whether to give him a second term or steer the state in another direction by electing Republican Jack Ciattarelli. History isn't necessarily on Murphy's side: New Jersey hasn't reelected a Democrat as governor in four decades and hasn't elected a governor from the same party as the president in three decades.
“It’s one of the big, animating reasons why we’re running like we’re 10 points behind,” Murphy said in an interview. “We’re taking nothing for granted. I mean, history has proven that this can be a very fickle year in terms of politics.”
But Murphy does have some sizable advantages. He is leading in public polls and has raised more money than Ciattarelli, and New Jersey has 1 million more registered Democratic voters than Republicans. He's also welcoming some Democratic heavy-hitters to the state: Former President Barack Obama appeared on Saturday, and President Joe Biden was set to visit on Monday to promote his spending plan.
The race has national implications, though it has gotten less attention than Virginia's high-profile governor's contest. A loss for Murphy would be shocking in a state that Biden won over Republican Donald Trump by nearly 16 percentage points last year. It would also raise questions about whether moderate voters repelled by Trump were returning to the Republican Party now that the former president is no longer in office.
New Jersey’s left turn has been years in the making: The state has voted Democratic in every presidential contest since 1992. It hasn't elected a Republican to the U.S. Senate since Clifford Case in 1972. But governor's races have been continually in play for the GOP. The last three Republicans elected governor have won two consecutive terms.
“My focus is solely New Jersey,” Ciattarelli said in an interview. “To win as a Republican, you’ve got to be focused on what it is that’s bothering the people of New Jersey, and that’s exactly what I’ve done for the past 22 months.”
Public polls show that Murphy has gotten high grades from voters for his response to COVID-19, even though New Jersey was one of the hardest-hit states at the beginning of the pandemic. About 35% of the state's nearly 25,000 deaths came from nursing and veterans homes. Murphy held daily news conferences about the pandemic at the beginning and is now holding two a week. He ordered most nonessential businesses to shut down early in the pandemic, including restaurants, theaters, gyms and most retail stores. Masks were required and social distancing was encouraged. Schools shuttered and then went mostly remote.
“Many people are very happy with the way he handled the COVID-19 era. The numbers are very clear," Republican state Sen. Michael Testa acknowledged.
Some Republicans are also concerned that Trump's unpopularity could be dragging down Ciattarelli's approval numbers. Since a bruising June primary with rivals who claimed Trump’s mantle, Ciattarelli has sounded more like the moderate he was while in the Legislature, speaking about his support for the Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion and for immigrants without legal status to get driver’s licenses, for instance.
He's been playing up his credentials as an accountant and the founder of a small business while campaigning in Democratic-leaning cities as well as GOP strongholds.
Ciattarelli has also had to balance the more traditional GOP wing with the Trump faction. That’s meant calling for lower property taxes, a perennial issue in New Jersey, and decrying COVID-19 restrictions. But it has also meant confronting questions about his appearance at a rally centered on “Stop the Steal,” a reference to Trump’s false claims that the 2020 election was stolen. Ciattarelli said he didn’t know the rally was focused on the former president’s false claims.
Appearing with Murphy in Newark on Saturday, Obama said of Ciattarelli, “When you’ve got a candidate who spoke at a ‘Stop the Steal’ rally, you can bet he’s not going to be a champion of democracy.”
Asked whether he would welcome Trump campaigning for him, Ciattarelli said he does his own campaigning and isn’t “into endorsements.” He has also said he accepts that Biden was legitimately elected.
The state's political environment shifted decidedly to the left during the Trump administration, with Democrats picking up all but one House seat in the state in 2018. They lost a second one when Jeff Van Drew left the Democratic Party over Trump's first impeachment. Murphy himself won election in the first year of Trump’s presidency running on a self-styled progressive platform. His win was helped by the unpopularity of Christie, whose top lieutenant ran against Murphy in the 2017 race.
“When you look which way the wind is blowing, it is very tough for a candidate to be a good candidate if the wind is not blowing at your back,” said Assembly Republican leader Jon Bramnick. “And in New Jersey, the wind is blowing definitely more Democratic."
Shavonda Sumter, a Democratic Assembly member and chair of the Legislative Black Caucus, said the push for more progressive policies like early in-person voting and expanded vote by mail began at least a decade ago. Those policies, vetoed by Christie, became law after Murphy became governor.
Sumter sees the real turning point coming in 2020 during the national reckoning on racial injustice followed the killing of George Floyd by police. She said white people's increased consciousness of the role race can play in politics has helped Democrats politically.
“Folks woke up and realized this fight is not done,” she said.
For Toby Sanders, a Trenton resident who attended a recent Murphy gun control rally in Bloomfield, this year's governor's contest is more than just a state race.
“It’s a bellwether for the nation. It’s a foundation to build on,” said Sanders, who considers himself a progressive.
For other voters, state and local issues are more important.
Mike Gardner, a municipal party official and retired attorney who worked at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, said his top issue is getting rid of the high property taxes. He backs Ciattarelli.
Jim Arakelian, a real estate agent and retired law enforcement official, said he doesn't think police officers have been respected by the Murphy administration, citing the decision to release certain police disciplinary records as a big concern. He’s also skeptical about the media and the polling in the race, citing 2016 and Trump’s surprise victory.
“Polls can be skewed anyway the press wants,” said Arakelian, who attended a Ciattarelli campaign stop at a New Milford pizzeria.
In their own way, some Democratic voters are also skeptical about polls, not wanting to take them for granted.
“America is contested space right now. There is a battle quietly and loudly going on," Sanders said.