New Jersey voters choose their next governor today. Here’s what to watch

Tuesday is the final day for voters to cast a ballot in the New Jersey race for governor.

There are at least five names to choose from, but the two main party candidates are sure to be the top vote-getters. Polls have shown for months that Gov. Phil Murphy, a 64-year-old Democrat, has a comfortable lead — as much as 11 points according to a Monmouth University poll released last week.

But there is one major factor working against the governor. If Murphy is Tuesday’s victor, he’ll be the first Democratic governor to be reelected in New Jersey since Brenden Byrne in 1977. That’s even though the state has about a million more registered Democrats than Republicans.

The ongoing issue for Democrats in statewide elections is that New Jersey homeowners pay the highest property taxes in the county and Murphy’s challenger, Republican Jack Ciattarelli, reminds voters of that every chance he gets.

The other odd-year gubernatorial election happening this year is in Virginia, where Democrat Terry McAuliffe is locked in a dead heat with Republican Glenn Youngkin.

Ciattarelli, 59, is a business owner and former member of the New Jersey legislature. He calls Murphy a “tax and spend liberal.” If elected, he says he’ll cut the taxes, but what is unusual this time around is that Murphy makes no bones about New Jersey being a high tax state. Instead of promising to cut them, Murphy told member station WNYC that residents get good value for their high taxes: “That means the best public schools in America. It means among the best health care systems in America. It means a location second to none that we need to invest aggressively in.”

Murphy’s honesty about taxes has picked up support from some unlikely quarters. “He’s honest about what he believes,” says Harry Hurley, the host of a conservative talk radio show for WPGG, which broadcasts in the Republican-leaning southern part of the state.

“I will tell you that I had great respect for him. He campaigned saying he was going to raise certain taxes, and nobody does that. They lie. They lie to get elected and then they raise the taxes.”

Murphy is a former investment banker with Goldman Sachs who spent his own money to run for governor in 2017. He accomplished nearly everything he campaigned on four years ago. He raised taxes on millionaires, made community college free for those who can’t afford it, raised the minimum wage and kick-started a wind energy sector that now leads the region. But polls show the reason he’s leading the race is due to something he didn’t plan on.

“At the end of the day, Murphy’s handling of COVID is really going to be the determination for most people,” says Matt Hale, a professor of political science at Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J.

“He’s done a very workmanlike, very professional and very quiet job, but I think that’s exactly what people want.”

New Jersey was one of the first states to be hit by the public health crisis, and it came at a particularly bad time for the governor. In early March, Murphy underwent surgery for a cancerous tumor on his kidney, just as the spread of COVID in New York and New Jersey was becoming apparent. He kept up on developments from his hospital bed and quickly moved to shut down the state.

He soon was holding daily briefings that would draw thousands of viewers online. Despite the high marks for his leadership during the pandemic, possibly the biggest blemish on his first term will be the almost 8,000 deaths at nursing homes in a little more than a year, including two facilities for veterans.

Murphy defends his record, saying the state was hurt by being among the first to face the pandemic, without adequate supplies of protective equipment or anyplace to send residents when they were ready to return home from the hospital.

Ciattarelli does not support mask mandates for school kids or vaccine mandates, both of which poll strongly in New Jersey, especially among parents like Monica Schaefer, who is in her 50s and has kids in the schools in Chatham, a suburb that’s evenly split between Democrats and Republicans.

She says she thinks the mandates in school are really important because they help everyone, not just students. “I’m a true believer in unions and for our teachers, and it protects our teachers, and I think it’s important to keep them on staff, and it’s important that they’re protected.”

If elected, Ciattarell has promised to lower property taxes, redistribute the extra funding that poor school districts are given to suburban communities. He was known as a moderate during his time in Trenton as a member of the state legislature, but ran to the right during his primary, attending a “Stop the Steal” rally on January 6, the day of the Capitol riot.

He has also promised to roll back police reforms, prohibit abortions after 20 weeks and slow the climate change actions taken by Murphy.

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