Call it a tale of two turnouts. In Virginia, Republican Glenn Youngkin won a governor’s race that saw the highest turnout in 24 years as voters on both sides of the aisle showed up in massive numbers. By contrast, New Jersey Republican Jack Ciattarelli ran an unexpectedly close race against Democratic incumbent Phil Murphy, narrowly losing (though a recount is in the offing) an election where turnout was the lowest in a century, as unenthusiastic Democratic voters appeared to stay home. Even with Ciattarelli’s loss, it was a startling election in a state where Democratic registered voters outnumber Republicans by some 1 million. New Jersey’s second-most-powerful Democrat, state senate president Steve Sweeney, was defeated by an unknown GOP newcomer, as anger over the state’s high taxes and sluggish economy and President Biden’s plunging popularity took their toll.
While pre-election polls in Virginia accurately charted Youngkin’s rise in support, no poll before Election Day in New Jersey had Ciattarelli closer than six percentage points behind Murphy. (As of Thursday morning, Murphy led 50.4 percent to 48.8 percent.) Murphy’s incumbency, his favorability rating of above 50 percent, and the Democratic edge in registered voters all suggested that Ciattarelli had a steep uphill climb.
Still, warning signs had appeared. Murphy’s approval among independent voters—a key target of the Republican’s campaign—had dipped below 50 percent. Though polls showed that a majority of voters approved of Murphy’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, his tough lockdown policies and the state’s high death rate (third in the nation) also generated intense anger in a sizable portion of the electorate. Murphy also ranked low on his handling of the two other most important issues in the race, according to polls: taxes and the economy.
New Jersey remains one of the nation’s highest-taxed states. Murphy, who often boasts of his progressive credentials, did little in his first four years to rein in the government spending that drives the state’s high levies. In fact, he used federal stimulus money to increase spending this year by a whopping 10 percent, even as he increased income taxes and unemployment levies on businesses. Not surprisingly, New Jersey has had one of the slowest economic recoveries from the lockdowns, and polls showed that voters favored Ciattarelli’s approach to taxes and the economy by a substantial margin. That grew increasingly salient as polls nearer to the election showed Covid receding as an election issue.
Murphy and the state Democratic Party ignored these signs. Comfortably ahead in the polls, the governor brought in national figures such as President Biden and Bernie Sanders to campaign for him. “People are paying $4 a gallon for gas, and they bring in two guys who want to raise taxes and increase spending?” a spokesman for Ciattarelli asked. Biden, in particular, proved a liability. Though he won New Jersey last year with 57 percent of the vote, only 43 percent of the state’s residents approve of the job Biden is doing today. Ciattarelli also hammered Murphy on economic issues. One effective ad portrayed Murphy as out of touch with ordinary voters based on a still-controversial remark from 2019, when the governor said, “if you’re a one issue voter and tax is your issue, either a family or business, and if that’s the only basis upon which you’re going to make a decision, we in New Jersey are probably not your state.”
All this helped produce a surprisingly close race—and offered a warning to Democrats that even a solidly blue state such as New Jersey can’t be taken for granted as the party shifts rapidly to the left. It also suggested that the Democratic strategy of trying to beat Republicans by tying them to Donald Trump—a Murphy tactic—has run its course. Ironically, Republicans in Jersey did more damage to Murphy by linking him to an increasingly unpopular Biden than Murphy did to Ciattarelli by invoking Trump. Moreover, as Covid fears recede, anger in the wake of 18 months of pandemic restrictions may be a more powerful motivator for voters. In general, turnout was much stronger in such Republican strongholds as Ocean and Monmouth counties, where residents were less likely to favor strict lockdowns, than in heavily Democratic areas. Pollsters missed all of this activity so thoroughly that one apologized today. “If you are a Republican who believes the polls cost Ciattarelli an upset victory or a Democrat who feels we lulled your base into complacency, feel free to vent,” wrote Patrick Murray of the Monmouth University poll.
But the close governor’s race was only one blow for New Jersey Democrats. Also worthy of attention is the stunning defeat of Steve Sweeney, longtime president of the state senate. Once touted as a possible gubernatorial candidate, Sweeney lost his seat to unknown first-time Republican candidate Edward Durr. Durr, a trucker, decided to run against Sweeney when he was denied a concealed-carry permit for a firearm, despite having a clean record. Durr walked the district to campaign, had no media operation except printed flyers that he handed out himself, and watched results from his living room on Election Night. He called Sweeney part of the problem, not the solution, to Jersey’s woes. “The Senate President has spent 20 years in Trenton,” Durr said. “Higher taxes, increasing debt and the rising cost of living. We deserve better. New Jersey, it’s time for a change.”
One irony in Sweeney’s defeat is that four years ago, he fended off a challenge financed by public-sector unions angry over some of his positions on government-worker benefits. In that race, judged by experts to be the most expensive state legislative reelection in U.S. history, Sweeney and his opponent spent nearly $19 million. Durr, by contrast, claims to have spent just $154 on his campaign, though this amount has since been updated by election reports to a still-modest $2,300. For Democrats in New Jersey, that feat may be the most unsettling thing of all about Election Night.
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