More than 18 nail-biting hours after the polls closed, Gov. Phil Murphy won reelection by a narrow 20,000-vote margin out of more than 2.4 million votes cast over Republican former state Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli, according to the Associated Press.
“Thank you for saying we need to keep moving forward on our shared journey to a stronger and fairer New Jersey,” Murphy said in his remarks in Asbury Park on Wednesday, hours after the race was called. “In New Jersey, we know how to make forward work from the middle out and the bottom up.”
The results when the AP called the race showed Murphy with 1,210,997 votes while Ciattarelli had 1,191,703. Murphy thus bucked a historical trend during which no Democratic governor had won reelection since 1977.
“If you want to be governor for all of New Jersey, you must listen to all of New Jersey,” the governor added. “So, tonight, I renew my promise to you – whether you voted for me or not – to work every single day of the next four years to keep moving us forward.”
A Ciattarelli campaign official disputed the call. “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, said Communications Director Stami Williams in a tweet.
The two candidates each called it a night at their election watch parties shortly after 1:00 a.m – Murphy at the Asbury Park Convention Center and Ciattarelli at a hotel in Bridgewater – after it became clear that a winner would not be declared that night. Both stressed the importance of patience in waiting until all the votes were properly tallied.
Murphy led Ciattarelli in polls and outpaced him both in spending and fundraising throughout the campaign. But the Ciattarelli camp in Bridgewater was far more festive with an upset victory within sight. In Asbury Park, Murphy and Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver put out a more resolute message: it’s not over until each vote is counted.
But the result remained in doubt through much of Nov. 3. Still, Dave Wasserman, the U.S. House editor for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, tweeted at 10:23 a.m. that day that he had “seen enough” to predict that Murphy would prevail in the race.
Ballot counting dragged on through early Wednesday evening, giving Murphy only a narrow victory.
“Young adults, growing families, and seniors who are struggling to get by voted for lower taxes, a focus on affordability, and to ward off anyone who might consider expensive new policies that would make their problems worse,” reads a joint statement issued Wednesday from the New Jersey Senate’s Republican legislators.
“After [Tuesday], it should be clear that whatever mandate Democrats thought they had to govern from the far left no longer exists.”
Trouble in the statehouse
In the 120-seat state Legislature, where Democrats hold a wide majority in both chambers, the party lost several key seats. One of the most powerful officials in the statehouse – Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-3rd District – was locked in a close contest against a candidate who raised just $10,000 and spent less than $200. By comparison, in Sweeney’s 2017 reelection bid his Republican challenger was backed by the powerful New Jersey Education Association. The campaign cost $17 million, the most of any state legislative race.
Sweeney’s Republican opponent this time, long-time truck driver Edward Durr, [nearly] unseated one of the strongest allies that South Jersey political powerbroker George Norcross had in the state Legislature.
With the results in doubt, Sweeney cancelled a leadership conference scheduled for Nov. 4, during which the Senate leadership would be decided for the next two-year session, which starts in January.
Meanwhile, Republicans flipped seats in several other districts with some races also too close to call Tuesday evening through Thursday morning.
Business as usual?
Ciattarelli – an accountant by trade and previously the founder of a medical journal – portrayed himself as the Main Street candidate who would push through deregulation for businesses and lower taxes. He has painted Murphy as a wealthy and out-of-touch non-New Jersey native, even poking fun at how the current governor eats pizza.
Murphy in turn touted his “stronger and fairer” New Jersey message, campaigning on first-term accomplishments such as the $15 minimum wage, paid sick leave and his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. He accused Ciattarelli of being a Trump puppet, who would bring the former Republican president’s “extreme” agenda to the state.
“We are a national leader in raising the minimum wage … In making millionaires pay their fair share to give working families and the middle class a break,” Murphy said Wednesday night. “In proudly being the quintessential pro-union state … In creating a clean energy economy with good jobs.”
Tom Bracken, who heads the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce, called the election a “referendum on the state’s slow economic recovery,” which happened under Murphy. “People are feeling economic pain and they want the pain to lessen,” Bracken continued. “The message is: When the smoke clears, we have to address the business climate and taxes.”
Both candidates were criticized by the business leaders for offering few details on how they would improve the state economy and business climate.
Ciattarelli ran on several proposals, including slashing the corporate tax rate and reworking the school funding formula to lower property taxes. But the former would require corresponding budget cuts which he did not publicly identify, while the latter could be bogged down in court.
Ralph Albert Thomas, president and chief executive officer of the state’s accounting trade group the New Jersey Society of CPAs, told NJBIZ last month that while he felt Ciattarelli’s proposals had some meat to them, “he just needs to articulate them more.”
“What we saw is that the recovery has been sluggish. Murphy has not been able to deliver many of the things that voters were expecting of him,” added Dan Cassino, who heads the polling institute at Fairleigh Dickinson University.
“Tax reform, fixing NJ Transit – all of the things that impact the business climate – they just haven’t happened.”
Editor’s note: This story was updated at 8:04 a.m. EST on Nov. 4, 2021, to include remarks from Gov. Phil Murphy.