For much of the last year and a half, the Covid-19 pandemic has scrambled American politics. Though the virus’s electoral power is finally starting to fade—President Biden’s declining approval rating is more a function of his foreign policy missteps and slow-footed response to economic woes—pandemic politics remain a decisive factor in the Garden State. New Jersey is one of only two states with a gubernatorial election this year—but unlike Virginia, where Biden’s plunging popularity has helped Republican Glenn Youngkin pull ahead of Democrat Terry McAuliffe, in Jersey incumbent Democrat Phil Murphy still holds a solid, though shrinking, lead on Republican challenger Jack Ciattarelli. Given the state’s lagging recovery and the Murphy administration’s many well-documented failings in response to the pandemic, that would seem surprising. But it appears that New Jerseyans favor Murphy largely because he locked them down thoroughly and continues to endorse strict pandemic policies, which they favor to a greater degree than residents of many other states.
A month ago, Murphy held a 13-point lead over Ciattarelli, even in the wake of the Biden administration’s Afghanistan nightmare and grumblings about inflation and empty store shelves. Though the Republican challenger has subsequently cut the lead in half, he still has huge ground to make up with just days to go. Polls show that the two most relevant issues for Jersey residents are the pandemic and high taxes. Neither should be a strength of Murphy’s.
New Jersey was one of six states where thousands of elderly residents died of Covid after the state told administrators of nursing homes that they should allow former residents who had been hospitalized with Covid to return to the facilities after they were discharged from intensive care. Though nursing home administrators objected—one told the Murphy administration that “people will die”—the state persisted. More than 8,000 people subsequently died in Jersey nursing homes from Covid, and the federal government later launched a probe into the handling of cases at three state-run facilities. Though the feds have dropped similar inquiries in other states, their investigation of what happened in Jersey is ongoing.
Even before the nursing home debacle, however, the Murphy administration fumbled key responses to the virus’s spread. Early on, Covid testing and quarantining of the infected were a key part of every state’s strategy. But as Jersey’s infection rate soared in early 2020, widespread reports appeared in local newspapers about the difficulties people were having in finding places to get tested. So few tests were available that testing sites had to shut down within hours of opening because they ran out of supplies. That made it impossible to identify those who were carrying the virus, left doctors and hospitals to treat people without being sure whether they were infected, and kept the state in the dark about how bad its Covid problem was.
Though Murphy said repeatedly throughout March and April of 2020 that the state was ramping up its testing capability, skeptical reporters began crunching the numbers. Under the headline “Coronavirus Testing Debacle,” a team of journalists detailed how Jersey, one of the hardest hit states, was administering far fewer tests than other states, even those with much less intense outbreaks. County governments began trying to establish their own testing regimes, sparking a bidding war among them for sparse supplies. Though Murphy blamed much of the problem on a lack of federal resources, other states, the press noted, had solved the problem by creating their own tests through local labs.
One result of these missteps is that Jersey racked up one of the highest per capita death rates from Covid among the states. It ranks third, with 314 deaths per 100,000 residents since the beginning of the pandemic, behind just Mississippi and Alabama. Even New York State, where New York City was ground zero for Covid in the U.S. for months and former governor Andrew Cuomo was lambasted for sending infected seniors back to nursing homes, has a lower overall Covid death rate than Jersey under Murphy.
Now the pandemic is starting to wane and the economy is bouncing back, but not so much in New Jersey—in fact, WalletHub recently crunched the numbers for every state and rated Jersey’s the slowest rebound in the U.S. It has been an economic laggard for years, a result of high taxes and heavy regulation that have made it one of the least favorite states for business executives. In a recent CEO Magazine poll, Jersey ranked 47th among business executives as a place to expand. Murphy certainly hasn’t made it better. He is one of the few governors to raise income taxes during the pandemic, and he’s recently opted to increase unemployment tax levies on businesses, even as other states use federal stimulus money to replenish their unemployment trust funds.
Given these numbers, it seems almost astounding that Murphy has a solid lead heading into the election. But Jersey residents have clearly been scarred by the pandemic and are among the most strident advocates of lockdown policies. For instance, heading into this school year, mask mandates for K-12 students were among the most controversial of polices. An August poll by Gallup found the country divided, with 48 percent of parents approving of the mandates. By contrast, in a poll at about the same time, two-thirds of Jersey residents approved of mandatory masking in schools ordered by Murphy. In another recent poll, 62 percent of Jersey residents said that they still supported mask mandates for everyone, despite high vaccination rates in many communities. Jersey retains among the strictest Covid lockdown policies of any state. That, too, seems fine with state residents. Despite the nursing home and testing debacles and the state’s extraordinarily high death rates, more than six in ten residents recently said that Murphy had done a good job handling the coronavirus.
In his campaign, Ciattarelli has blasted Murphy for the impact his Covid policies have had on small businesses and criticized him for doing little to rein in the state’s high property taxes. The Republican has branded Murphy, a former Goldman Sachs executive, as “too rich to care” about the little guy. Ciattarelli has made headway recently with independent voters, whose approval ratings for Murphy have fallen below 50 percent amid reports that he might impose strict vaccine mandates after the election.
Murphy, for his part, has tried to tar his opponent and indeed the entire state Republican party with accusations of Trumpism, a stretch in a state with a moderate GOP. He’s also emphasized moving the state forward after Covid—though that project is clearly off to a slow start. Murphy has also said little in ads about the state’s Covid experience under his administration. Despite what polls say, he seems to have decided that doing so would be like poking a stick into a hornet’s nest. Jersey has already been stung enough.
Photos by Yana Paskova/Getty Images (left), Spencer Platt/Getty Images (right)