Murphy began his second – and final – term with an new set of concerns. His reelection victory was far closer than anyone expected. He has vowed not to increase taxes in his second term, and to focus more on business and resident affordability.
According to a recent New York Times report, Murphy’s staff put together several focus groups to gauge why the election was so close, and learned just how exhausted many New Jerseyans were with COVID-19 restrictions. Republicans critical of how Murphy has handled the pandemic charged that the decision to lift the school mask mandate was fueled by the political calculus of those focus groups, rather than any scientific basis.
Broadly speaking, New Jersey’s governor is one of the most powerful in the nation. But Murphy has struggled to build alliances in the past, and moderate lawmakers react cooly to his left-leaning progressive policies.
“Relative to other blue states, New Jersey’s Legislature remains much more moderate than other state Legislatures,” said one political insider. “That’s not going to change.”
His relationship with Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin and the newly elected Senate President Nicholas Scutari are relatively calm, especially compared to Murphy’s relationship with Scutari’s predecessor Stephen Sweeney, who unexpectedly lost his reelection bid last November. Sweeney and Murphy frequently disagreed in public during Murphy’s first two years in office.
Murphy’s pre-pandemic record is a mixed bag, highlighted by the $15 minimum wage on which he campaigned. Corporate incentives, marijuana legalization and major fixes to NJ Transit were elusive. His poll numbers rose during the pandemic, but gradually fell as months turned to years of COVID-19 headlines.
Most Republicans and some Democrats said they want to rein in the governor’s emergency powers, after Murphy invoked them for nearly two years with little oversight from the Legislature. His big challenges come up next month when the governor is slated to present a new budget.
The nomination of former chief counsel Matt Platkin as the next state attorney general, while generally well received by many Democratic state senators, has been criticized by Republicans. Murphy may have to call in more favors than he could afford in order to secure the 21 votes needed for Senate approval, one insider said. And that could mean a series of budgetary concessions.
Murphy’s second term could be marked by the presidential bid he’s been widely thought to be considering. A Murphy-aligned super PAC was launched earlier in February to boost his national presence, but Murphy has so far denied that he plans to run for president.
“He’s got to tread carefully in thinking about his national ambitions,” an insider said.
Former-Gov. Chris Christie’s presidential aspirations saw him spend much of 2015 and early 2016 campaigning in New Hampshire and Iowa ahead of the Republican primaries rather than focus on his own state. That helped tank the Republicans approval ratings. Should Murphy decide to throw his hat in the ring, he could very well be forced to travel outside of New Jersey on a far more regular basis.