NEW JERSEY - For the first time in 44 years, a Democratic governor running for reelection in New Jersey has won a second term. Democrat Phil Murphy narrowly defeated Republican challenger Jack Ciattarelli, The Associated Press projected on Wednesday.
Murphy, 64, campaigned on his progressive agenda and accomplishments. He enjoyed an advantage in both campaign cash and party registration (the state has about 1 million more registered Democrats than Republicans).
Murphy delivered his victory speech Wednesday night in front of a room of his supporters.
"If you want to know what the future looks like folks, come to New Jersey," Murphy said.
Murphy 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 overtime 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.
The AP called the race Wednesday evening when a new batch of votes from Republican-leaning Monmouth County increased Murphy’s lead and closed the door to a Ciattarelli comeback.
Ballots remaining to be counted included a significant number of votes from predominantly Democratic Essex County, along with mail-in votes spread across other counties. Murphy has won the mail-in vote by a wide margin even in Republican leaning counties like Monmouth.
Ciattarelli spokesperson Stami Williams disputed the call because of the close margin, calling it "irresponsible."
The closeness of the race has surprised experts, who watched public polls showing Murphy leading comfortably and looked to his party's registration advantage of more than a million voters.
"If you asked anybody several months ago within the state, I think anyone would have predicted a high double-digit landslide for Murphy," said Ashley Koning, director of the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling at Rutgers University.
Murphy was the U.S. ambassador to Germany in President Barack Obama's first term and called on his former boss to campaign for him.
Polls showed Murphy got solid support for his handling of the COVID-19 outbreak, which hit New Jersey hard in early 2020 and killed more than 25,000 people. But this year when COVID vaccines became widely available, New Jersey excelled at getting residents vaccinated.
Ciattarelli, 59, a former member of the state's General Assembly, raised much more money than the GOP nominee did four years ago and appeared to rise in the polls in recent weeks. He campaigned on a promise to slash property taxes and take a different approach to managing the pandemic.
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.
But it wasn't enough to keep Murphy from breaking his party's reelection losing streak. Prior to Murphy, the last Democrat to win reelection as New Jersey governor was Brendan Byrne in 1977.
A spokesperson for Ciattarelli said Wednesday that the campaign was focused on the vote count and said a possible legal pursuit of a recount was on the table. Murphy also called Wednesday morning for every vote to be counted.
New Jersey does not have an automatic recount law, but the candidates are permitted to request one. The party that wants a recount must file a suit in State Superior Court in the counties where they want to contest tallies. That has to be done within 17 days of Election Day.
With The Associated Press.