Going into Election Day, the Democratic incumbent governor of New Jersey, Phil Murphy, had a comfortable lead of 8-14 points in the polls. This wasn’t surprising in a state where registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans by more than a million.
So imagine national Democrats waking up this morning and nearly choking on their oatmeal when they saw the incumbent Democratic governor trailing an unknown Republican businessman, Jack Ciattarelli, by 1200 votes with 88 percent of the vote counted.
In truth, Ciattarelli was given no chance by pollsters. And with all the attention on the Youngkin-McAuliffe donnybrook in Virginia, the New Jersey race flew under the radar.
What is unusual this time around is that Murphy makes no bones about New Jersey being a high tax state. Instead of promising to cut them, Murphy told member station WNYC that residents get good value for their high taxes: “That means the best public schools in America. It means among the best health care systems in America. It means a location second to none that we need to invest aggressively in.”
Murphy’s honesty about taxes has picked up support from some unlikely quarters. “He’s honest about what he believes,” says Harry Hurley, the host of a conservative talk radio show for WPGG, which broadcasts in the Republican-leaning southern part of the state.
“I will tell you that I had great respect for him. He campaigned saying he was going to raise certain taxes, and nobody does that. They lie. They lie to get elected and then they raise the taxes.”
In 1984, Democratic presidential candidate Walter Mondale promised to raise taxes — and not just on the rich. For the record, Mondale got clobbered by Ronald Reagan, who won 49 states.
Murphy’s handling of the pandemic was widely praised by the media and supported, according to the polls, by New Jersey voters. But as a political issue — especially a wedge issue to define the parties — COVID has disappeared.
Polls showed Murphy got solid support for his handling of the COVID-19 outbreak, which hit New Jersey hard in early 2020 and resulted in the deaths of more than 25,000 people. About a third of those deaths occurred in nursing and veterans homes. But the state also excelled at getting people vaccinated and was quick to become one of the states with the highest percentages of eligible people to be fully vaccinated.
Unlike Virginia, where Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe sought to make Donald Trump a stand-in for Republican Glenn Youngkin, Trump was not a huge factor for either side in the New Jersey race.
No matter how this contest turns out, Democrats have a lot to worry about. The last time Democrats lost both the governorship of New Jersey and Virginia was in 2009. The midterm elections in 2010 turned out to be a slaughter for the GOP as they took back both the House and Senate.
Might history repeat itself?