the inside game

The Lucky Phil Murphy

How he got ahead of the backlash that has stung Democrats from coast to coast.

Photo: Seth Wenig/AP
Photo: Seth Wenig/AP

New Jersey governor Phil Murphy had just returned to his hospital bed after surgery to remove a malignant tumor from his left kidney on March 4, 2020, when he checked his BlackBerry. He saw a message from his chief of staff: The state had its first case of COVID-19. New Jersey’s next few months were as dark as almost any in its history: nearly 28,000 deaths, including around 8,000 in nursing homes, with hospitals overflowing and running low on ventilators. It got so bad that the first-term Democratic governor pleaded with Donald Trump for help, both in Washington, D.C., and at Trump’s golf course in Bedminster. At one point, he joined Tucker Carlson on Fox News in what was obviously an attempt to catch the president’s attention. (It worked.)

Soon, Murphy had a television studio constructed at his home in Red Bank based on the specs of the setup Joe Biden had built at his Delaware home during his presidential campaign. For months, Murphy regularly broadcast more than 200 COVID briefings to the state, though without the fanfare of his then-counterpart across the Hudson. “This was not, to my way of thinking, a national moment,” Murphy said carefully, and without mentioning Andrew Cuomo by name, when I spoke with him this summer shortly before the New York governor’s career imploded.

With days to go until New Jersey’s gubernatorial election, Murphy is the latest COVID-era Democratic governor to face an effective referendum on his aggressive pandemic management, though he is perhaps the one who has flown furthest under the radar despite his state’s devastating experience with the virus. Cuomo, for one, resigned amid not just sexual-misconduct allegations but also questions about a cover-up of the true nursing-home death count in New York. California’s Gavin Newsom faced a closer-than-expected race for weeks before cruising through his state’s GOP-funded recall attempt, which had been fueled by lockdown fatigue and accusations of Newsom’s own COVID-safety hypocrisy. In Virginia, former governor Terry McAuliffe has been answering for the pandemic response of his ex-lieutenant, Ralph Northam, in his own toss-up bid to take Richmond.

But if Murphy’s race has been less interesting than Newsom’s and McAuliffe’s, that’s only because it never seemed quite as competitive until now. A distinct sense of discomfort pervades Murphy’s campaign after a spate of recent polls showing his margin has narrowed into the single digits in some cases — a surprising dynamic on the surface in an unequivocally blue state where Joe Biden beat Trump by 16 points, but it’s a scary enough one that Murphy recently brought in Biden and Barack Obama to bolster his standing. Really, though, he has been racing for months to stay ahead of national trends that have bedeviled his party’s state-level leaders around the country. Ever since Biden won the presidency, the prediction from the chattering class and its political-consultant annex has been consistent: A suburban backlash was coming for local progressives and national Democrats, they insisted, powered largely by politically liberal-to-moderate parents who might not have liked Trump or his party but were really tired of their kids being stuck at home.

This wasn’t entirely uninformed speculation, even if the message often came from Republicans eager to spin the conversation away from Trump. A group of parents in suburban, yuppie-packed Montclair sued the local board of education in February to force a return to in-person learning, and similar lawsuits popped up elsewhere — the Montclair plaintiffs’ lawyer was a parent in a nearby district who had sued there as well. Until this fall, elected officials who had spent a year taking the pandemic seriously were struggling mightily and publicly to figure out how and when to reopen schools.

Over the summer and into the fall, Murphy insisted — loud enough for his state’s angry suburban parents to hear — that he would make sure schools opened for real even as the Delta variant bore down, when he was forced to finally issue a mask mandate and a vaccine order for school employees. Polling showed the moves were popular even if some parents’ discontent about the year of virtual learning lingered.

This was all useful material for the frequently wrong national pundits who started the year with predictions of suburban rage, knowing full well they would have three clear test cases in 2021. If they were right and a broader revolt was brewing, it would probably first play out in the California recall election, in which they thought Newsom might struggle in the burbs after a year of lockdowns. (He didn’t.) The races for governor in two of the most suburban states in the country, Virginia and New Jersey, would come a few weeks later. Every four years, the president’s party suffers in these races, and in Virginia, a legit swing state until its northern suburbs recently veered leftward, it seemed a sure bet that McAuliffe would at least have to sweat against his GOP opponent. (He definitely is sweating, though Republican Glenn Youngkin has opted to focus more on a culture war over school curricula than on COVID.)

But New Jersey would provide the clearest test. Murphy already had history working against him: No Democrat had been reelected there in more than four decades. It wouldn’t seem to help that he was relatively little known in a state recognized for its bombast (you may remember his predecessor). Less a ladder-climbing Jersey pol in aspect than the picture of a 64-year-old finance veteran (complete with a uniform of gray suit and Allbirds), Murphy cuts a slightly deceptive figure. He was a longtime Goldman Sachs honcho but also a DNC finance chair turned Obama-administration ambassador to Germany before he ran for governor in 2017. He has a smiley, slightly nerdy affect that has tempted some of his political allies to suggest he is running for reelection on a Biden 2020–esque pitch of unflashy competence, as a champion of the idea that governance doesn’t need to win headlines to be effective. For months, he campaigned on having saved New Jersey from a far worse COVID fate, a mirror of a strategy Newsom used to great effect as he survived this fall. New Jersey, Murphy often points out, is the most vaccinated big state in the country.

The quiet-competence pitch is seldom a candidate’s first choice — it’s usually a crutch for campaigns without anything flashier to sell to swing voters. Murphy’s cautious allies may prefer it, but the governor himself isn’t campaigning or governing like a boring moderate, having entered office on the strength of a flurry of promises to erase Chris Christie’s legacy and then promptly and successfully ticking through progressive priorities like raising the minimum wage, legalizing the marijuana industry, and imposing a “millionaires’ tax” that led to Murphy-signed rebates for 800,000 New Jersey families.

Instead, it might have been the rest of his early message that set the tone for the fall in the state’s Trump-loathing burbs and cities. Just like Biden, Newsom, and McAuliffe, Murphy spent the summer making the second half of his argument a case that his GOP opponent, Jack Ciattarelli, is in thrall to Trump. He didn’t have to stretch to paint Ciattarelli — once the standard kind of moderate, low-tax-first New Jersey Republican — as unacceptably right wing while Ciattarelli tried to rally the state’s GOP base to his side after winning the primary. One Murphy campaign ad opened with a scene of Ciattarelli speaking at a “Stop the Steal” rally amid “Confederate flags, white supremacists,” as the narrator helpfully points out, before cutting to images of the January 6 riot. Obama also brought up the rally when he visited New Jersey in October.

Murphy, for one, insisted he was surprised by Ciattarelli, but he looked unbothered in his 14th-floor office in Newark, seated across from a huge portrait of James Gandolfini (Westwood’s James Gandolfini!) puffing a cigar. That day, Ciattarelli was facing yet another wave of unflattering news: Local reports revealed that, at a recent event at a gun range, he had asked supporters to “give me a little wiggle room on how to talk about issues,” while insisting, “We’re not teaching gender ID and sexual orientation to kindergartners. We’re not teaching sodomy in sixth grade. And we’re going to roll back the LGBTQ curriculum. It goes too far.”

“He’s in a private setting asking his base to give him some wiggle room?” Murphy asked, slightly shaking his head as he looked out across the room past Gandolfini to a portrait of Bruce Springsteen (Freehold), which was displayed near ones of Jack Nicholson (Spring Lake), Danny DeVito (Asbury Park), and Queen Latifah (Irvington). “That stuff doesn’t fly in New Jersey, at least in my experience,” he continued. “People may not like you, they may not like everything you do or stand for, but what they really don’t like is if you’re one thing in one room and another thing in another room.”

Ciattarelli apparently agreed and leaned into the kind of standard anti-tax message that’s more typical of New Jersey Republicans, matched with vague claims that “Biden isn’t up to the job in Washington,” as he says in recent ads. Ciattarelli has also been urging voters not to worry about the election being rigged, an implicit admission that Trump-inspired lies about stolen votes have no chance of helping him in New Jersey even if that could work for him in a broader environment.

That may be his best bet because Murphy closes his appeals by targeting minority base voters with warnings of Ciattarelli’s “Trump-style politics that just divide us” and “extremism that denies the rights of Black and brown communities and tries to keep us out of the voting booth,” while promoting his own education investments and minimum-wage increases.

This is the playbook rolled out by Biden, honed by Newsom, and now practiced relentlessly by Murphy. And it makes sense: The most recent Monmouth poll of the state showed that Biden, mired in endless negotiations over his agenda, was six points less approved than disapproved in New Jersey. But in his race, Murphy was 11 points ahead.

The Lucky Phil Murphy