TRENTON, N.J. - A tight race for governor is unfolding in New Jersey. Gov. Phil Murphy was trying to win reelection against Republican former State Assembly member Jack Ciattarelli in a race that was also too early to call. If successful, Murphy would be the first Democrat reelected as the state's governor in 44 years.
Polls were open from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Tuesday, though, already some 700,000 votes — about a third of the total in 2017 — have been cast by mail-in ballots or in early in-person voting. Many mail-in ballots still need to be counted.
Murphy has been leading in the polls, has a 1 million-voter registration advantage and had more cash in his campaign coffers than Ciattarelli in the final days of the race. But the Republican has far surpassed his predecessor four years ago in fundraising and has seen the gap in public polls move in his favor — if only by a few points.
Though Ciattarelli's win would send a jolt of surprise through state and national politics, a win by Murphy would also break some historical trends.
No Democrat has won reelection as governor in New Jersey since Brendan Byrne in 1977, and the party opposite the president's has won the New Jersey governorship going back to 1985.
Murphy has campaigned as a solid progressive, with a record to show for it. He signed bills into law that expanded voting access, provided for taxpayer-funded pre-K and community college, hiked the minimum wage to $15 an hour over time along with opening up the state to renewable energy like wind power.
Also on his watch and with his support, New Jersey legalized recreational marijuana, increased K-12 education funding and began fully financing the state's share of the public pension. He paid for some of the new state spending with higher taxes on incomes over $1 million.
In the closing days of the campaign, to hammer the point home, he appeared alongside U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders at Rutgers University at a rally. He cast the election as critical for holding on to progressive gains made during his first term.
Ciattarelli's campaign seized on comments Murphy made that New Jersey probably isn’t for voters whose top issue is taxes, casting the governor as out of touch with a concern many prioritize.
He also sought support from those who disagreed with Murphy's handling of COVID-19. At a recent campaign rally in Hazlet when someone in the audience asked about mandates, Ciattarelli said there'd be none under his administration — an allusion to mask and vaccination mandates.
He also implicitly criticized critical race theory in schools, saying that "we are not going to teach our children to feel guilty." Critical race theory is a method of thinking of America’s history through the lens of racism that has become a political lightning rod of the Republican Party.
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.
Also on the ballot Tuesday are all 40 seats in the state Senate and all 80 seats in the Assembly. Democrats control both chambers.
Voters are also being asked two questions this year. One asks whether to allow betting on New Jersey college teams or teams from other states whose games are played in New Jersey.
A separate question asks whether organizations that are permitted to hold raffles should be able to keep the money to support themselves.