TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — New Jersey voters had their say Tuesday on whether Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy will win a second term after enacting much of his progressive agenda or if they will chart a new direction with Republican challenger Jack Ciattarelli.
Polls have closed in New Jersey in one of just two statewide contests for governor in the country. Before polls opened Tuesday, already some 700,000 votes — about a third of the total in 2017 — had been cast by mail-in ballots or in early in-person voting.
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.
At the Washington Township Senior Center, Joseph Buono wore his red Make America Great Again hat to vote. He voted for Ciattarelli for governor largely because of his promise to address property taxes in a state where the average bill is more than $9,000 — and because he doesn’t want incumbent Murphy to remain in charge of the state’s pandemic response.
“The fear is he’s going to mandate everything if he does win,” said Buono, a 31-year-old accountant. His wife, Nadia Buono, 37, who works in finance, said she doesn’t want their two young children to be required to be vaccinated when they turn five.
Washington Township is the biggest town in Gloucester County, home to middle-class suburbs of Philadelphia. The county, generally more conservative than the state, has been a bellwether, voting for the winner in the last five gubernatorial elections.
Outside the bustling senior center, home to voting for several precincts, Murphy voters said they approve of the governor’s handling of the pandemic.
“I think he did an excellent job with COVID,” said Julie Steinman, 60, a second-grade teacher in a nearby community. Steinman said she’s an unaffiliated voter but usually supports Democrats running for governor, largely because they’re friendlier to teachers and their unions.
In Franklin Township in Ciattarelli’s home county of Somerset, some Murphy voters were focused more on the national political scene than his stewardship of the state.
“This is an election where there is no way in hell where I would vote for a Republican. I’m so frustrated with the division in this country,” said Elizabeth Ranney, 89, of the Kingston section of Franklin Township. “It just breaks my heart.”
Somerset County is a battleground, which Democrats won in 2017 after Republicans had held it for decades.
A lawsuit that was filed Tuesday evening by the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, based on social media posts and local news reports, alleged that dozens of voters were turned away from polls. The suit, which had sought to extend voting until 9:30 p.m., was denied by the court, the civil rights organization said.
A message seeking comment was left with the secretary of state’s office, which oversees elections in the state.
While a Ciattarelli 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.
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.
AP reporter Geoff Mulvihill contributed to this report.