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Phil Murphy is the first Democratic governor of New Jersey to win reelection in 40 years. Photo: Mark Makela/Getty Images.
Phil Murphy is the first Democratic governor of New Jersey to win reelection in 40 years. Photo: Mark Makela/Getty Images.

New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy bucks history, but just barely

The incumbent’s path to a Democrat’s first successful reelection in 40 years in New Jersey faced a major challenge from Jack Ciattarelli.

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New Jersey has 1 million more registered Democrats than Republicans. Both of the state’s U.S. Senators are Democrats and both chambers of the state legislature are blue. But gubernatorial races have been much less predictable, and a Democrat hasn’t won reelection since 1977. 

For most of the day after Election Day 2021, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy was locked in a closer-than-expected race that remained too close to call. But ultimately, Murphy became the first Democratic governor in four decades to win reelection in the Garden State. 

After trailing behind his Republican opponent Jack Ciattarelli for most of the night of Nov. 2, Murphy edged in front of him by fewer than 5,000 votes out of more than 2 million cast in the usually reliably blue state.

Ciattarelli focused his campaign on high taxes, as New Jersey has the highest property taxes in the nation. He hit Murphy in commercials and two debates over a video of Murphy saying “if taxes are your issue, then New Jersey probably isn’t your state.” 

Murphy claimed the quote was taken out of context because he was addressing a business group and explaining that New Jersey will never be able to compete with low-tax states, but that businesses come for the highly-educated workforce, the proximity to major cities, and the state’s mass transit. 

Ciattarelli promised to lower taxes and redistribute the extra money that poor school districts are given from suburban communities. He said during his campaign that suburban school districts and property taxpayers are “unfairly burdened” by the extra funding that goes to cities. 

Murphy devoted much of his campaign showing the similarities between Ciattarelli and former President Donald Trump, labeling him an extremist and pointing out that he attended a “Stop the Steal” rally in New Jersey on the same day as the riot at the U.S. Capitol. 

Murphy fulfilled almost every one of his 2017 campaign goals and is frequently described as the most progressive governor in the country. He raised the minimum wage, made earned sick leave mandatory, made community college free for those who can’t afford it, worked to legalize marijuana, and raised income taxes for people who earn more than a million dollars a year. 

The only major roadblock was the COVID-19 pandemic, which tanked the popularity of local and federal leaders in every corner of the U.S. In New Jersey, Murphy has been strict with vaccine and mask mandates, which rubbed more than a couple voters the wrong way, especially in the blue-collar South of the state.

The race was finally called at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 3 by the Associated Press, and Murphy won reelection.

Murphy aides remained confident throughout the campaign, and on election night, that the governor’s popularity would secure him a second term.

“We’re going to get reelected — or not — on our own weight here,” a Murphy advisor told CNN before the polls closed.

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