New Jersey’s nothingburger governor underperforms

4 November 2021

4:38 PM

4 November 2021

4:38 PM

By removing Donald Trump from social media and New York governor Andrew Cuomo from office, progressives unwittingly gave an opening to a largely unheralded candidate in New Jersey.

That’s why the newspaper headlines on the Wednesday morning after the election all declared the governor’s race in the Garden State “too close to call,” which in itself is a victory for beleaguered Republicans from the northeast. And even if Democratic governor Phil Murphy does pull it off, as now looks likely, this election portends serious headaches for Democrats.

Instead of being bombarded with incendiary tweets from Trump in tandem with media reports about sexual harassment allegations against Cuomo, New Jersey voters had the opportunity to better acquaint themselves with Murphy’s policy missteps. A former US ambassador to Germany under President Barack Obama, Murphy is the quintessential nothingburger who marched in lockstep with his party’s heavy-handed COVID-19 mandates.

While appearing on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News program in April 2020, Murphy said that the Bill of Rights was “above his pay grade” and that he was not thinking about the Constitution when he shut down religious services and businesses during the pandemic. With Trump and Cuomo out of the limelight, Jack Ciattarelli, a Republican businessman who previously served in the General Assembly, was able to make the race about Murphy’s gaffes and flubs. Although he trailed by double digits in most polls right up until a few days before the election, Ciattarelli astutely ran with an eye toward recent history and with a keen understanding of what drives New Jersey’s unaffiliated voters.

Since New Jersey is dominated by the big media markets in New York and Philadelphia, there’s a tendency for state’s large bloc of unaffiliated voters to break late. That’s what happened during the 1993 gubernatorial race between Republican Christine Todd Whitman and then-incumbent Democratic governor Jim Florio. Whitman was trailing badly throughout the summer months despite voter antagonism toward Florio’s $2.8 billion tax hike. But after an adroit debate performance and embracing tax cuts at behest of fellow New Jerseyans Steve Forbes and Larry Kudlow, Whitman came storming back. She was at her best when pliable voters and the media were finally paying attention in the days leading up to Halloween.

So was Ciattarelli, who made the most of campaign stops where he could meet swing voters in person. During his visit to the famed Reo Diner in Woodbridge, New Jersey, he spoke and moved like a candidate who knew he had the wind at his back. The diner was one of the favorite broadcast outposts of the late Bob Grant, a pioneer of conservative talk radio, who died in 2013. Grant’s constant assaults on Florio were an asset to the GOP in 1993, but his combative style would have complicated the terrain in Trump-like fashion for Ciattarelli. Instead, the former assemblyman was able to campaign unencumbered by such baggage.

While the media didn’t give Ciattarelli much of a chance, they did him the favor of constantly rebroadcasting what was perhaps Murphy’s most consequential blunder, which came during an appearance at Rowan University in 2019. During his comments, Murphy told audience members that “if taxes are your issue, New Jersey’s probably not your state.” The implication was striking: Murphy was essentially telling people to leave New Jersey.

Ciattarelli repeated Murphy’s quote during his own exchange with Tucker Carlson. But it wasn’t just on policy that he seized on the right strategy. When Carlson asked him if he was concerned about voter fraud, Ciattarelli resisted the Trumpian temptation to tell voters the system was hopelessly rigged and instead encouraged state residents to get out and vote. “We’re very confident in this year’s election system,” he said.

Even with his herculean effort, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where the Democratic Party’s built-in advantages in New Jersey didn’t ultimately put Murphy over the top.

This is a state that voted against Republican Abraham Lincoln twice and has consistently leaned towards Democrats since the Civil War. The latest figures from the New Jersey Division of Elections show that Democrats outnumber Republicans by about one million in terms of voter registration.

But then take a look at the large bloc of unaffiliated voters who are almost on an even keel with Democrats. They obviously gravitated toward Ciattarelli in the final weeks and they are gradually becoming a part of the growing tax rebellion in the state. Will it continue? Democrats today certainly aren’t happy.

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