GOP looks for upset in New Jersey governor's race as Democrats hope to buck history

By Adam Brewster

/ CBS News

New Jersey voters will decide Tuesday whether to make Governor Phil Murphy the first incumbent Democrat to be re-elected since 1977.

The Garden State is reliably blue in presidential and U.S. Senate elections, but its off-year state office election gubernatorial cycle led to GOP victories in 1994 and 2009, the years after Democrats took control of the White House.

Murphy is squaring off against former Republican Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli, a moderate Republican who easily won the party's nomination in June by defeating opponents more closely aligned with former President Trump. Ciattarelli has been running for governor for nearly two years and has barnstormed the state in the home stretch, holding dozens of retail-style events. 

New Jersey has 1 million more registered Democrats than Republicans, giving Murphy a statistical edge. Recent polling from Monmouth University showed Murphy up 11 points among registered voters and a Stockton University poll had the governor up 9 points among likely voters. 

GOP looks for upset in New Jersey governor's race as Democrats hope to buck history
Phil Murphy, Jack Ciattarelli Yana Paskova/Getty Images, Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Ciattarelli and his allies insist the race is closer than those polls show and believe there is a strong chance for a major upset on Tuesday. If he pulls off the monumental upset, it could create a template for Republicans in bluer states during the 2022 midterm elections. 

Murphy has focused on his first term accomplishments out on the campaign trail. He highlights raising the minimum wage, enacting a tax on wealthy New Jerseyans, expanding paid family leave benefits, increasing funding for public schools and providing more access to pre-k. 

"I think back to the day that I put my hand on the Bible four years ago. We had underperformed, we had lagged, we underachieved, we let our people down constantly," Murphy told supporters in Elizabeth on Sunday. "I'm here to tell you those days are over."

For Ciattarelli, the focus has largely been on taxes, especially New Jersey's high property taxes. Recent polls from Monmouth University and Stockton University showed taxes have taken over as the number one issue for voters. 

"This is the guy who said to the highest-taxed people in the nation, 'if taxes are your issue, we're probably not your state,'" Ciattarelli told a crowd in Edison on Thursday. "He's out of touch. I'm main street, he's Wall Street. I'm an MBA/CPA, he's an investment banker. I'm you, he's somebody else. He roots for the Red Sox, let's send him back to Massachusetts."

Painting Murphy as an outsider has resonated with some of Ciattarelli's supporters, who say the governor is out of touch with voters on economic and pandemic related issues. 

"(Murphy's) not a Jersey boy. He doesn't know the nuances," said Jerome Sisolak, a retired police officer from Edison. "We're going to put this to bed and send him back where he belongs."

The pandemic is also a top issue for voters and Murphy insists that he is best fit to lead the state amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Ciattarelli has hammered Murphy over nursing home deaths in the early days of the pandemic, while Murphy has focused on Ciattarelli's opposition to vaccine and mask mandates. 

"He puts his finger in the air and sees which way the political winds are blowing before he utters anything about vaccinations or masking," Murphy told a crowd at Rutgers University on Thursday at an event with Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

Ciattarelli, who is vaccinated and has urged people to get vaccinated, has said he believes getting the vaccine is about personal choice. A Stockton University poll from late September found 58% of likely voters supported New Jersey's student mask mandate and 56% backed a requirement for businesses with more than 100 employees to require vaccination or weekly testing.

"I strongly encourage people to get vaccinated. Do I believe that the government has a right to tell people they have to be vaccinated for COVID-19? I don't," Ciattarelli told reporters after casting his ballot on Friday. 

Education has been an important issue, but has not dominated the race like it has in Virginia. Ciattarelli has spoken about parents who have concerns about school curriculum, figuring out a new formula for school funding to lower property taxes and said at the first debate that "certain subject matter" for kindergarten through eighth grade students is "best left for the kitchen table." 

Murphy has touted increased funding for schools and has tied schools to the pandemic by focusing on issues like the student mask mandate. 

Paul Chopra, a student at Rutgers, said Thursday that he wasn't sure how he was going to vote when he showed up at Murphy's rally with Sanders. He thought Murphy handled the pandemic well, but liked Ciattarelli's place in the moderate lane of the Republican Party. But on Sunday, he told CBS News that he's casting his ballot for Murphy. 

"Much of his agenda, such as the minimum wage, has played a big role," Chopra said about how he reached his decision. "I think (raising the minimum wage) was a common sense thing to do."

This has been the first year with early in-person voting after Murphy signed a law earlier this year allowing for nine days of early voting for general elections. According to the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University, 170,000 people have voted early in-person as of Saturday and 451,000 people have voted by mail as of Friday. Democrats have cast 59% of total votes so far. 

Adam Brewster

CBS News political reporter.