Republican challenger Jack Ciattarelli has pulled ahead of incumbent Phil Murphy in a virtual dead heat with around 80 percent of the vote counted in New Jersey's gubernatorial race, which will likely come down to the 400,000-plus mail-in ballots postmarked as late as Tuesday.
"I wanted to come out here tonight because I prepared one hell of a victory speech," Ciattarelli told an energized GOP crowd watching results arrive slowly. "I'm here to tell you we're winning. We're winning. We want every legal vote counted. We have to have time to make sure every legal vote is counted."
Ciattarelli, 59, a former three-term member of the state Assembly, leads Murphy, 50.10 percent to 49.16 percent.
He is seeking to become only the second Republican governor of New Jersey since 2002 alongside Chris Christie, who served two terms and immediately preceded Murphy.
A 23-year veteran of Goldman Sachs, Murphy, 64, won his first term by defeating Republican Lt. Gov. Kim Guagdano by a 56 percent to 42 percent margin after having served as U.S. Ambassador to Germany under Barack Obama.
"We are going to wait for every vote to be counted, and that's how Democracy works," Murphy told supporters on Newsmax after midnight, declining to make a concession or a declaration of victory.
With a 39 percent to 23 percent registration advantage, Democrats have not lost a presidential election in the state since 1988, control 10 of the state’s 12 House seats, both Senate seats and both houses of the state legislature.
Polls have closed in New Jersey in one of just two statewide contests for governor in the country. Before they opened Tuesday, already some 700,000 votes — about a third of the total in 2017 — had been cast by mail-in ballots or in early in-person voting.
Murphy has been leading in the polls, has a 1 million-voter registration advantage and had more cash in his campaign coffers than Ciattarelli in the final days of the race. But the Republican has far surpassed his predecessor four years ago in fundraising and has seen the gap in public polls move in his favor — if only by a few points.
At the Washington Township Senior Center, Joseph Buono wore his red Make America Great Again hat to vote. He voted for Ciattarelli for governor largely because of his promise to address property taxes in a state where the average bill is more than $9,000 — and because he doesn’t want incumbent Murphy to remain in charge of the state’s pandemic response.
"The fear is he’s going to mandate everything if he does win," said Buono, a 31-year-old accountant. His wife, Nadia Buono, 37, who works in finance, said she doesn’t want their two young children to be required to be vaccinated when they turn five.
Washington Township is the biggest town in Gloucester County, home to middle-class suburbs of Philadelphia. The county, generally more conservative than the state, has been a bellwether, voting for the winner in the last five gubernatorial elections.
Outside the bustling senior center, home to voting for several precincts, Murphy voters said they approve of the governor’s handling of the pandemic.
"I think he did an excellent job with COVID," said Julie Steinman, 60, a second-grade teacher in a nearby community. Steinman said she’s an unaffiliated voter but usually supports Democrats running for governor, largely because they’re friendlier to teachers and their unions.
In Franklin Township in Ciattarelli's home county of Somerset, some Murphy voters were focused more on the national political scene than his stewardship of the state.
"This is an election where there is no way in hell where I would vote for a Republican. I'm so frustrated with the division in this country," said Elizabeth Ranney, 89, of the Kingston section of Franklin Township. "It just breaks my heart."
Somerset County is a battleground, which Democrats won in 2017 after Republicans had held it for decades. In nearby Bridgewater, also in the county, Republican voters mentioned the Murphy administration's so-called immigrant trust directive, which limits the assistance local and state police can provide to federal immigration authorities.
"Murphy's a pretty mediocre governor and I'm not gonna settle," said John Buxbaum, 54, a network engineer from Bridgewater. "I think we need to not be a sanctuary state. I think we need to be more fiscally responsible. I think we need to not be focused on mandates — I want to eliminate government control."
While a Ciattarelli win would send a jolt of surprise through state and national politics, a win by Murphy would also break some historical trends.
No Democrat has won reelection as governor in New Jersey since Brendan Byrne in 1977, and the party opposite the president's has won the New Jersey governorship going back to 1985.
Murphy has campaigned as a solid progressive, with a record to show for it. He signed bills into law that expanded voting access, provided for taxpayer-funded pre-K and community college, hiked the minimum wage to $15 an hour over time along with opening up the state to renewable energy like wind power.
Also on his watch and with his support, New Jersey legalized recreational marijuana, increased K-12 education funding and began fully financing the state's share of the public pension. He paid for some of the new state spending with higher taxes on incomes over $1 million.
Ciattarelli's campaign seized on comments Murphy made that New Jersey probably isn’t for voters whose top issue is taxes, casting the governor as out of touch with a concern many prioritize.
He also sought support from those who disagreed with Murphy's handling of COVID-19. At a recent campaign rally in Hazlet when someone in the audience asked about mandates, Ciattarelli said there'd be none under his administration — an allusion to mask and vaccination mandates.
He also implicitly criticized critical race theory in schools, saying that "we are not going to teach our children to feel guilty." Critical race theory is a method of thinking of America’s history through the lens of racism that has become a political lightning rod of the Republican Party.
Polls showed Murphy got solid support for his handling of the COVID-19 outbreak, which hit New Jersey hard in early 2020 and resulted in the deaths of more than 25,000 people. About a third of those deaths occurred in nursing and veterans homes. But the state also excelled at getting people vaccinated and was quick to become one of the states with the highest percentages of eligible people to be fully vaccinated.
Also on the ballot Tuesday are all 40 seats in the state Senate and all 80 seats in the Assembly. Democrats control both chambers.
Voters are also being asked two questions this year. One asks whether to allow betting on New Jersey college teams or teams from other states whose games are played in New Jersey.
A separate question asks whether organizations that are permitted to hold raffles should be able to keep the money to support themselves.
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.
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