Centrist NJ voters send message to liberal Murphy in close race
TRENTON – Gov. Phil Murphy is on track to win a second term – but the recriminations for his narrow win reverberated quickly in state politics.
Four years after winning election in a rout, Murphy is clawing his way across the finish line despite an overwhelming Democratic voter registration advantage. While no Democrat has won a second term in New Jersey since 1977, Murphy doesn’t emerge from his re-election bid in a position of strength.
Republican strategist Mike DuHaime said at an Eagleton Institute of Politics post-election forum Wednesday that the size of Murphy’s 14-point win four years ago was a reaction to then-President Donald Trump.
“Gov. Murphy and his team may have misread the 2017 election results in thinking that it was some sort of mandate for far-left governance in New Jersey. It wasn’t,” said DuHaime, who helped lead Gov. Chris Christie’s campaigns.
Many voters didn’t want the state to become the California of the East Coast, as Murphy has pledged.
“New Jersey Democrats and independents are not San Francisco or Seattle or California Democrats,” DuHaime said. “It is much more of a centrist Democrat in New Jersey, and they are tax-sensitive and react in such a way.”
Democratic strategist Julie Roginsky – who worked for Murphy’s 2017 campaign but left amid complaints about its culture – said she’s shocked Murphy still hasn’t broadened his message from what appealed to Democratic primary voters four years ago.
She said Murphy’s campaign had no message beyond a vague ‘stronger and fairer’ slogan that would have connected with voters in the middle who can't afford how much it costs to live in the state.
“New Jersey voters care about their financial bottom line, and there is nothing that the governor said to tell them why they should vote for them,” Roginsky said.
Murphy says taxpayers get a lot of value and services for the high cost of living here – but Roginsky says most people don’t see it that way.
“There’s a visceral affordability crisis going on here that I believe 95% of workers or people in the state feel, no matter how much money they make,” she said.
Patricia Campos Medina, president of Latina Civic, said that even as Murphy appears poised to pull off a squeaker of a win, he’ll start his second term without a mandate.
“The lack of excitement for this race is because they were trying to stay away from defining what he’s doing to do the next four years,” she said.
Campos Medina said Murphy took for granted that core urban constituencies would turn out for him because of past accomplishments as he appealed to suburban Republican swing voters who turned to Democrats while Trump was president. She said crowds were sparse and the enthusiasm was on Republican Jack Ciattarelli’s side.
“We saw it coming,” she said. “I went to some events in Jersey City, even in Newark where you can tell people – you can see open spaces and because there was not that effort to figure out what was happening on the ground and why people were not coming out.”
DuHaime said if Murphy wins re-election, as vote-counting trends suggest he will, he’ll enter his second term significantly weakened. He thinks nothing will get done in the Legislature in the next two years, as Democrats will see the election results as voter pushback on far-left policies.
“Democrats in the Legislature will look at him and say: You are the reason that we have fewer of us here, and I don’t want to be next,” he said.
Depending on the final outcome of some races, Republicans may have gained as many as three seats in the Senate and eight in the Assembly.
Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. Contact him at email@example.com.