NJ election 2021: Murphy versus Ciattarelli race too close to call

COLLEEN O'DEA, SENIOR WRITER AND PROJECTS EDITOR | NOVEMBER 2, 2021 

NJ Spotlight News

Nov. 2, 2021: L to R: Supporters of Gov. Phil Murphy wait for results at election night party in Asbury Park; Jack Ciattarelli supporters at their candidate's results party in Bridgewater.

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Gov. Phil Murphy looked to break a 44-year curse and become the first New Jersey Democrat reelected as governor, by beating Republican Jack Ciattarelli and assuring continued one-party control of the State House for at least the next two years.

But Ciattarelli appeared ready to defy all the polls and predictions and win a shocking victory against Murphy whose road to reelection had been heralded by nearly every poll leading into Election Day. Murphy led early in the night, but as votes came in Ciattarelli narrowed that gap and kept the difference between them tight hours after the polls closed.

As election night lingered on into election morning, the race was a dead heat.

With 87% of the vote counted early Wednesday,  Ciattarelli was leading Murphy by roughly 2,00 votes, with the margin virtually tied at 49% for each candidate.

“We’re going to have to wait a little while longer than we had hoped. We’re going to wait for every vote to be counted, and that’s how our democracy works,” Murphy told supporters just before 12:30 a.m. “We’re all sorry that tonight could not yet be the celebration we wanted it to be, but as I said, when every vote is counted and every vote will be counted, we hope to have a celebration.”

In traditionally Republican counties, voters turned out overwhelmingly for Ciattarelli, especially in Monmouth and Ocean counties. Ciattarelli also gained ground in other suburban counties.

For most of the night, votes from Essex County were not posted, giving Murphy supporters hope that the state’s largest concentration of Democratic voters would be enough to wipe out Ciattarelli’s gains. When the returns came in after 11 p.m., they weren’t. But by 2 a.m. after remaining ballots were counted in Bergen, Murphy jumped ahead with a lead of 4 percentage points in that county after trailing Ciattarelli by 5 percentage points. That was enough to draw the margin to within 2,00 votes out of more than 2 million cast statewide.

Both Murphy and Ciattarelli promised to monitor the outstanding vote counting in the coming days.

“I’m here to tell you that we’re winning, we’re winning,” Ciattarelli said. “We’ve got to have time to make sure every legal vote is counted and I’m confident — I’m confident — that when they are, I can stand before you and not say ‘we’re winning,’ I can stand before you and say ‘we’ve won.'”

“You can watch us closely over the next week or so in order for us to do what needs to be done to certify this win. The great news, guys, is we have sent the message to the people of New Jersey … and although it was not my intention, we have sent the message to the entire country.”

The counting continues

Votes are still being counted. And any ballots sent by mail with a postmark of Tuesday are also left to be counted in some areas.

While most voters approved of Murphy’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, the coronavirus was no longer dominating the campaign by mid-October, Monmouth University Polling Institute surveys found. But polls also showed almost all voters felt some of the public health restrictions harmed small businesses, a sentiment Ciattarelli sought to tap into. Undecided voters also appeared willing to blame Murphy for the high rates of COVID-19 deaths in nursing home, another issue Ciattarelli sought to exploit during his campaign.

Some indications of the race’s tightening may have been revealed in recent public-opinion polling that indicated voters’ focus starting to shift somewhat away from the pandemic and toward the tax issue, which is always a simmering concern for New Jersey residents. Murphy hiked several taxes since taking office in early 2018 to support a series of hefty spending increases, and local property-tax bills also rose consistently throughout Murphy’s tenure. Ciattarelli and his allies pounded away at the tax issue in recent ads, including some highlighting comments Murphy made in 2019 during an event at Rowan University that were portrayed as being dismissive of concerns about high taxes.

The entire Legislature was on the ballot as well Tuesday and it likely would remain in Democratic hands. The party entered Election Day with a 25-15 majority in the Senate and 52-28 in the Assembly. Heading into the night, with several of the contested legislative races still too close to call, the party breakdowns in the Legislature were leaning toward 22 Democrats and 18 Republicans in the Senate, and 44 for Democrats and 36 Republicans in the Assembly.

Election Day snags

Election Day was not without snags in some locations or for individual voters. Officials at all 3,400 polling locations were checking in voters using new electronic poll books for the first time during a general election and there were glitches at an unknown number of locations, as well as issues involving individual voters. Some who were not allowed to cast even a provisional ballot were being urged to return later in the day to vote.

“The Division of Elections was made aware of issues related to the operation of electronic pollbooks at a small number of polling locations throughout New Jersey,” said Alicia D’Alessandro, a spokeswoman for the division, on Tuesday. “The affected sites have been or are being addressed.”

But delayed openings resulting from these glitches prompted the ACLU-NJ and the League of Women Voters to file a complaint in Mercer County Superior Court seeking to keep the polls open statewide until 9:30 p.m. They said the extra 90 minutes would help ensure all voters had time to cast ballots, including those who left polling places in frustration earlier in the day. The court denied the request shortly after 7:30 p.m., however, suggesting the existing schedule was sufficient to keep people from being disenfranchised. ACLU-NJ Legal Director Jeanne LoCicero said she was disappointed, but that the filing was necessary. “We heard reports throughout the day that there were people being denied access to their right to vote and felt the need to take urgent action,” she said. “Operational issues should not prevent voters from casting a ballot.”

Voter advantage for Dems

The race was Murphy’s to lose, given registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans by more than 1 million. And through the end of day Sunday, more Democrats voted early than Republicans, the unaffiliated and independents combined. Turnout in state elections historically has been notoriously low.

Reelection has stymied Democratic incumbents since Brendan Byrne won a second term in 1977 despite enacting New Jersey’s income tax. Before Murphy, two Democratic governors had sought reelection and lost, though by small margins — 26,000 votes for Jim Florio and 87,000 for Jon Corzine in a year when a third party candidate got 140,000 votes. Republicans Thomas H. Kean, Christie Whitman and Chris Christie all won second terms.

Murphy, who partnered again with Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver, largely ran on his progressive record, including a higher minimum wage, police and prison reforms and a push for 100% clean energy by 2050, and says he wants to keep making the state “stronger and fairer.” A Rutgers-Eagleton poll released Monday said national political views and party loyalty were contributing to support for the governor. Other supporters and opponents of Murphy’s cited his handling of the pandemic as a reason for their votes.

Ciattarelli campaigned saying New Jersey is broken and offered a plan that included tax cuts, a new school funding formula that would shift some aid from the cities to the suburbs and no COVID-19 mask and vaccine mandates. A Fairleigh Dickinson University poll released late last week said voters were sympathetic to Ciattarelli’s criticisms of some of Murphy’s police reforms but that wasn’t what prompted most of those polled to choose a candidate.

“Some of the police reforms that have been enacted are relatively unpopular, and Ciattarelli wasn’t wrong to focus on them,” said Dan Cassino, a professor of Government and Politics at FDU and the executive director of the poll.

Ciattarelli’s fine line

Ciattarelli walked a fine line during the campaign of supporting conservative policies while not fully embracing former President Trump, for whom he said he voted last year. Murphy, on the other hand, brought such Democratic stars as former President Barack Obama, Vice President Kamala Harris and first lady Jill Biden to the state to boost his candidacy.

The campaign for governor set a record for the largest amount spent by independent organizations — almost $27 million for the general election through last Friday, an amount bound to rise once all the spending is tallied — according to the state Election Law Enforcement Commission. Most of that was geared toward reelecting Murphy. Murphy was outspending Ciattarelli by about $100,000 as of the latest ELEC reports on Oct. 19 and had five times more money in the bank for the last leg of the race. Combined, the two had laid out $25 million with two weeks left in the campaign.

The winner of Tuesday’s race for governor will have a Democratic Legislature to work with after being sworn into office in January. That was not a surprise, given the party has controlled the Assembly since 2002 and the Senate since 2004 and current legislative district boundaries favor Democrats.

The outcomes of only a handful of the 120 races – 40 Senate seats and 80 Assembly seats, all two-year terms — were truly in doubt, those in the three districts that currently have split representation, meaning at least one Democrat and Republican, and these are considered the battlegrounds this year.

Close legislative contests

The results for some races may not be known for another week. Mail-in ballots postmarked by Election Day will be counted if received by Nov. 8. Once all the mail-in ballots have been counted, election officials will review all the provisional ballots and tally those deemed to have been properly cast.

The 2nd Legislative District, encompassing Atlantic City and nearby municipalities, started the night with a Republican senator and two Democratic assembly members.

In the Senate election in that district, voters had a choice between Democratic Assemblyman Vincent Mazzeo and Republican Vincent Polistina, a former assemblyman. In the Assembly races, Democratic Assemblyman John Armato was running for reelection with Caren Fitzpatrick, an Atlantic County commissioner, against Republicans Don Guardian, former mayor of Atlantic City, and Claire Swift, a Margate attorney.

This was among the most expensive races in the state this year, according to ELEC.

The most expensive race was in the neighboring 8th District, covering parts of Atlantic, Burlington and Camden counties, where the Republicans were trying to retake control of the Senate seat they lost when Dawn Addiego switched parties two years ago.

Addiego faced Jean Stanfield, a Republican who currently represents the district in the Assembly. In the Assembly race, Republicans looked to win control of the two seats, as Hammonton Councilman Michael Torrissi Jr. and Lumberton Township Administrator Brandon Umba faced Democrats Allison Eckel, a marketing specialist from Medford, and Mark Natale, a Marlton attorney who was an unsuccessful candidate two years ago.

Democrats were trying to turn central Jersey’s 16th District fully blue by capturing the Senate seat being vacated by Republican Christopher “Kip” Bateman. In the district, which includes parts of Hunterdon, Mercer, Middlesex and Somerset counties, Democrat Andrew Zwicker, current assemblyman in the district, ran against Michael Pappas, a former one-term GOP congressman and current township administrator in Bridgewater. Democrats looked to fill the two Assembly seats with Assemblyman Roy Freiman of Hillsborough and fellow Democrat Sadaf Jaffer, former mayor of Montgomery. Republicans in that race were Vincent Panico, president of the Hunterdon Central Regional Board of Education, and Manville Councilman Joseph Lukac III.

The new Legislature is slated to be sworn in to begin the next two-year session on Jan. 11. The governor takes office a week later, on Jan. 18.

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published this page in News and Politics 2021-11-03 03:33:41 -0700