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Hey, There’s Another Governor’s Election in 2021, and It’s a Bellwether Race, Too

The New Jersey race is almost completely ignored, but if Phil Murphy holds his lead and wins, he’ll be the first Democratic governor to be reelected in decades.

Former U.S. President Barack Obama and New Jersey Governor Phil Governor Murphy wave at attendees after taking part in an early vote rally in Newark, New Jersey.
Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Getty Images
Barack Obama and New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy wave at attendees after taking part in an early vote rally in Newark, New Jersey.

The last time a Democratic governor won reelection in New Jersey, Americans were packing theaters to watch Luke Skywalker save the galaxy in Star Wars, the top TV show was Three’s Company, disco ruled the airwaves, and the only “media” that was “social” was this thing called the rotary phone. That year was 1977, and it’s when Democratic Governor Brendan Byrne won reelection. No Democratic governor has been reelected since in the Garden State.

This November, though, New Jersey’s Democratic Governor Phil Murphy could finally end that more than four-decade drought. The race has tightened a bit in recent days, but Murphy still appears to be poised for a win. You would think the media would want to know how Murphy, who leads GOP opponent Jack Ciattarelli by six points in a recent poll, has put himself in a position to end the Jersey Democratic governor reelection curse. But instead, just about everyone in the political universe is ignoring Jersey and obsessively focusing on the Virginia governor’s race between Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Republican Glenn Youngkin.

It’s not that the Virginia race is not meaningful. That race is neck-and-neck in a state Joe Biden won by 10 points, so the attention is understandable. But the New Jersey governor’s race might be more of a bellwether for the popularity of Biden and the Democrats’ policy proposals than Virginia. There’s a simple reason for this: Murphy has already enacted many of them. For example, Biden is proposing a tax increase on the wealthy in the human infrastructure bill currently being crafted by Democrats. Well, Murphy already enacted a tax increase on people making more than $1 million, bumping the rate up from 8.97 percent to 10.75 percent.

Biden’s original proposal offered free community college. It looks like the Democrats are dropping that. But Murphy already did it, signing a law in February that enables any person whose family makes $65,000 or less tuition-free community college.

On Covid-19, Murphylike Bidenhas mandated vaccines or weekly testing for a large swath of workers. In Murphy’s case, this requirement applies to school and state workers—and just last week, Murphy signed an executive order expanding this mandate to state contractors.

Murphy’s GOP opponent has tried to make vaccine/testing mandates an issue just like Republicans across the nation. But an Emerson/WPIX poll released last week found that 56 percent of Jersey residents support Murphy’s vaccine/testing requirements, while just 38 percent disagree. Again, this backs Biden’s responsible approach to Covid-19.

Perhaps some dismiss Murphy’s race because they believe New Jersey is a deep-blue state. Well, that’s true for presidential elections, given that the last GOP presidential candidate to win the Garden State was George H.W. Bush, back in 1988. However, it’s not the case when it comes to the governor’s job. 

The two previous Democratic governors who sought reelection since 1977 lost their races. There was Jim Florio in 1993, who was defeated by Christie Todd Whitman, and then Jon Corzine, who lost reelection in 2009 to Chris Christie. And it was just in 2013 that Jersey residents reelected Christie, who served until January 2018. The reality is the state can swing either way when it comes to the top executive position. And as noted above, the polls in the Murphy–Ciattarelli race have closed with Murphy’s lead down from 13 points a month ago to his current lead of six.  

There are similarities between the Jersey and Virginia governor’s races that may be instructive for Democrats as we are watching both GOP gubernatorial candidates try to entice Trump supporters while not alienating independent voters and others disgusted by Trump. For example, in Virginia, a recent pro-Youngkin rally was headlined by Steve Bannon—and Trump called in by phone to endorse Youngkin again after a jaw-dropping pledge of allegiance to an American flag that was carried by a Trump supporter in the January 6 insurrection. While Youngkin criticized the pledge to the January 6 flag as “weird and wrong,” he didn’t denounce Trump’s endorsement.

Back in Jersey, Ciattarelli is trying the same political gymnastics. Last November, he spoke at a “Stop the Steal” rally held outside Trump’s golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey. Despite video of the event, the GOP candidate claims he thought it was some type of general  pro-GOP rally. The question, in both races, is will the ties to Trump hurt or help them more?

To those who are saying “forget about it” when it comes to the Jersey race for governor, they simply don’t know New Jersey’s history when it comes to electoral woes of past Democratic governors. Being a born and bred Jersey boy, I get that it may be too much to say as Jersey goes so does the country, but focusing just on Virginia’s race is as wrong as eating pizza with a fork and knife—or worse, trying to pump your own gas in Jersey.

If Murphy—or McAuliffe, for that matter—loses next week, it doesn’t necessarily mean the Democrats in 2022 are poised for disaster, but it will raise bright red flags that the Democratic base and their allies are not as fired up, even in blue states, as they were when Trump was in office. But if Murphy is victorious, ending the 44-year drought for Democratic governors in Jersey seeking reelection, Democrats on the national scene should take note that Biden’s proposals are not just good policy, they are also good politics.