There were signs aplenty that New Jersey Democratic Governor Phil Murphy’s big early polling lead over former state legislator Jack Ciatterelli was shrinking in the days before Tuesday’s off-year election. But still, Murphy’s advantage in the final RealClearPolitics polling averages was 7.8 percent. Throughout Election Night and into the wee hours, Murphy actually trailed Ciatterelli. The stress finally ended for Democrats on Wednesday evening when the Associated Press called the race for Murphy with a margin of less than 20,000 votes out of over 2.4 million counted so far.
He was expected to do better than this thanks to his relatively strong popularity, a reputation for managing the COVID-19 pandemic pretty well, and New Jersey’s solidly blue political character. But it’s clear that in New Jersey as in Virginia, there’s a pro-Republican trend that is likely to spill over into the midterms.
Murphy fell well short of his 14-point margin over Kim Guadagno in 2017, and of Joe Biden’s 15-point win there in 2020. Some of that shortfall may be attributable to Ciattarelli, who ran a well-financed, non-Trumpy campaign focused on the traditional Republican issue of property taxes. But it’s likely a normal swing voter and turnout backlash to Democrats controlling the White House accounted for some of Murphy’s declining margin. The last two Republicans to win the governorship of New Jersey, Christine Todd Whitman and Chris Christie, each won twice when Democratic presidents were in office.
Murphy is fortunate to have enjoyed the benefits of incumbency and to live in a state where it takes a bit of a tsunami for Republicans to win. His victory won’t get as much attention as the earlier California recall election or the Virginia gubernatorial contest between Terry McAulliffe and Glenn Youngkin held the same day, but less dramatic outcomes count, just like cliff-hangers and shockers.