TRENTON, N.J. (AP) - UPDATE: The Associated Press projects that Gov. Phil Murphy has narrowly won reelection.
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EARLIER REPORT: Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy and Republican Jack Ciattarelli on Wednesday were locked in what amounts to a tie in the New Jersey governor's race, with both candidates buckling up for a close finish likely to be contested by the loser.
The Associated Press has not yet declared a winner in the contest, which was too early to call. But Murphy had a lead of less than a percentage point in incomplete results as county elections officials continued to count ballots.
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.
New Jersey does not have an automatic recount law, but the candidates are permitted to request one. The party that wants a recount has to 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.
By Wednesday morning, it was clear the results of the elections delivered bad omens for Democrats, with Republicans capturing the Virginia governor's seat.
Headwinds facing Democrats, like President Joe Biden's falling approval ratings and congressional Democrats' struggles to enact their agenda didn't factor heavily enough into some experts' pre-election analysis, said Ben Dworkin, the director of Rowan University's Institute for Public Policy & Citizenship. He counted himself among them.
The close result also reflected exasperated voters, who were looking for an outlet to vent, he added.
"If you're frustrated with just your life right now, COVID requirements, your job, your business, the cost of living, then this was your first chance to express your frustration," he said.
Murphy's campaign centered on the progressive agenda he shepherded through the Democrat-led Legislature in his first term, delivering on promises like hiking the minimum wage, taxing millionaires and legalizing recreational marijuana, among others.
But the tug of political history was on the governor's mind.
No Democrat has been reelected governor of New Jersey since 1977, and the party opposite the president's has won the seat going back more than three decades. Unlike experts, he grasped that the race could be close, saying he was running as if he were the underdog.
Democrat Phil Murphy (left) and Republican Jack Ciattarelli
"I mean history has proven that this could be a very fickle year in terms of politics," Murphy said in a recent interview with The Associated Press. "The New Jersey election is overwhelmingly either a referendum on or a reaction to the presidential that just came before. I think we can all agree that was the most unusual presidential we've ever seen. How it impacts us? I do not know. But I know it adds more volatility, more uncertainty, yet another reason for us to run like we're 10 points down and that's exactly what we're doing."
Ciattarelli, too, was preparing for a close race. His spokesperson said Wednesday that the campaign was focused on counting votes.
In the run up to the election, he reminded voters during one rally that Republican Tom Kean Sr. won the governorship by a narrow margin in 1981.
"It's OK if it's close because as we say in sports a win is a win. But let us not — let us not — wake up on the morning of Nov. 3 and have lost by 1,797 votes," Ciattarelli said.
Murphy swept into office in 2017 with a 14-point victory over former GOP Gov. Chris Christie's lieutenant governor, Kim Guadagno, buoyed by former President Donald Trump's unpopularity in the state and Christie's low approval ratings.
The party expanded its registration advantage to 1 million more than Republicans and also picked up all but one of the state's 12 House seats, though it lost one when a lawmaker defected to the GOP over the Democratic push to impeach Trump.
Ciattarelli is a former state Assembly member, serving until 2018. He's the founder of a medical publishing company called Galen Publishing, and served as a local and county official in Somerset.
He walked a line between standing up for the moderate stances he had in the Legislature — like supporting Roe v. Wade — and appealing to Republicans who embraced Trump, particularly on cultural issues that have captured attention across the country
For example, he seized on a story about a school district that considered calling holidays simply a day off instead of their name. An Italian-American who regularly cites his heritage on the trail, Ciattarelli vowed that if he were governor the state would embrace the holiday.
Columbus Day is already a state holiday in New Jersey.
Murphy had no public schedule on Wednesday, and Ciattarelli has not announced plans to appear publicly either.
Associated Press writer Christina Paciolla contributed to this report.