elections of 2021

New Jersey Governor’s Race Is Getting Interesting and Maybe Even Competitive

Jack Ciattarelli and incumbent Phil Murphy debating. Photo: Frank Franklin II/AP/Shutterstock

Throughout this calendar year, there has been intensive national interest in two gubernatorial contests: the California recall election, which Democrat Gavin Newsom handily won, and Virginia’s regular gubernatorial election, which is coming down to a very close finish between Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Republican Glenn Youngkin on November 2.

But there is another gubernatorial election on November 2 that may be becoming sneakily competitive: in New Jersey, where Democratic governor Phil Murphy is running for a second term against former Republican state legislator Jack Ciattarelli. The race drew little attention initially because of Murphy’s big lead in early polls and the state’s increasingly Democratic advantage (Joe Biden won there by nearly 16 points in 2020, the fourth straight double-digit Democratic win in what was once a battleground state).

But Murphy’s lead has been steadily shrinking in fairly sparse public polling: down to nine points (50-41) among likely voters in a late September survey from Stockton University, and then further down to six points (50-44) among likely voters in an Emerson poll. This last survey showed undecided voters also leaning toward Ciattarelli. It’s prudent to say that while Murphy remains the favorite, an upset isn’t completely out of the question.

Aside from the partisan lean of the state, Murphy’s big advantage is a modestly positive job-approval rating based in no small part on his management of the COVID-19 pandemic. Ciattarelli is campaigning principally on the perennial Republican issue of New Jersey’s high property taxes, and on the alleged negative impact of high state and local taxes generally on business development.

Unlike the California and Virginia races, New Jersey’s doesn’t have the kind of harsh culture-war dynamics that has been so evident elsewhere this year. That’s in part because Ciattarelli is a bit of an old-school New Jersey Republican who favors some abortion rights (though he does support a ban on abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, four or five weeks before fetal viability) and isn’t a big favorite of either the National Rifle Association or the MAGA movement. In fact, Ciattarelli has given Donald Trump a wide berth (reciprocated, so far, by the former president), and defeated two very Trumpy opponents in the June GOP primary. This hasn’t kept Murphy from trying to tie the Republican to his party’s lord and master; Ciattarelli is still having to explain a November 2020 postelection rally where he appeared next to signs reading “Stop the Steal” (he claims he thought the rally was about the 2021 race). And while Ciattarelli has not opposed COVID-19 vaccines or masking, he has opposed mandates for vaccines and for masking of children.

Both candidates have accepted spending limits in exchange for public matching funds, which has more or less evened out direct campaign spending, though Murphy has an advantage in both outside help and in late cash on hand.

Ciattarelli is counting on something of a backlash to Joe Biden among persuadable voters and perhaps some depressed turnout among Democrats. The last two Republican governors of the state, Chris Christie (governor from 2010 to 2018) and Christine Todd Whitman (in office from 1994 to 2001), nurtured the same sort of centrist image and won two terms during a Democratic presidency.

If the Republican pulls off an upset in this very blue state, the overreaction nationally will be powerful, particularly if Youngkin also wins in Virginia. More likely, if Murphy wins but gets a scare, it will be considered a warning sign for Democrats in 2022, though there’s almost no chance New Jersey will vote for a Republican presidential candidate in 2024: that hasn’t happened since 1988.

New Jersey Governor’s Race Is Getting Interesting