Updated 10:35 p.m.
Less than a half-hour after polls closed Tuesday night, Democrat Phil Murphy beat Republican Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno to become New Jersey’s next governor, succeeding the deeply unpopular GOP incumbent Chris Christie.
At 10:04 p.m., Murphy was leading Guadagno 56 percent to 43 percent. In a blue state where Democrats outnumber Republicans by almost two to one, Murphy’s win might seem unsurprising.
But experts regarded the race as a referendum on President Trump’s first year in office. And others predicted voters might find it tough to separate Guadagno — the governor’s top aide in Trenton for eight years — from Christie, arguably one of the Garden State’s least popular governors after scandals from Bridgegate to Beachgate to his snubbed bid for the vice presidency.
Indeed, both men loomed large in the ballot box for some New Jersey voters.
“If I could get rid of Trump, I would be even happier. I’ve never seen our state so miserable, and I’ve never seen our country so miserable,” said John Holpp, 88, who said he voted for Murphy because he’s “hoping to get rid of” Christie, who is term-limited.
Guadagno tried to distance herself from both Christie and Trump during her campaign. But polls persistently showed her lagging, typically by double digits, behind Murphy throughout the campaign.
Still, her stand on some issues helped sway some voters, especially on hot-button issues like immigration.
Cheryl Nelson of Paulsboro, N.J., said she normally votes a straight Democratic ticket, but she couldn’t support Murphy because he pledged to make New Jersey a “sanctuary state.” Cities, states, and campuses that declare themselves sanctuaries don’t turn unauthorized immigrants in to immigration authorities.
“I can’t allow this to become a sanctuary state,” Nelson said. “I think people need to take responsibility for what they do.”
Guadagno campaigned heavily against Murphy’s “sanctuary state” comments, releasing ads focusing on it.
Election watchers predicted Tuesday’s voter turnout would reach a record low, especially with a brisk rain drenching much of the state since the afternoon. Just under 40 percent of eligible voters cast votes in the state’s last gubernatorial election in 2013, which was the lowest voter turnout ever for a governor’s race.
Murphy, 60, retired from Goldman Sachs in 2003 after 23 years, served as the U.S. ambassador to Germany from 2009 to 2013, and was the Democratic National Committee’s finance chairman from 2006 to 2009. The Wharton grad and father of four now lives in Middletown.
His running mate was state assemblywoman Sheila Oliver.
Guadagno, 58, worked as Monmouth County sheriff, assistant state attorney general, and assistant U.S. attorney before becoming New Jersey’s lieutenant governor in 2010. The Ursinis College grad and mother of three lives in Monmouth Beach.
Her running mate was Woodcliff Lake Mayor Carlos Rendo.
Minutes after the Associated Press declared Murphy the victor, he sent an email to his supporters, saying: “Without you, friend, this would not have been possible. You helped send a message that we are united — and that together, we’ll end the failed status quo in Trenton by creating a stronger, fairer economy that works for every New Jersey family.”
At 8:39 p.m., he tweeted: “Thank you, New Jersey! We’re ready to have your back in Trenton!”
Shortly after 9:30 p.m., Guadagno conceded the race, telling her supporters she called Murphy to congratulate him. “We may have lost the battle, but we will win the war in the long run,” she told her dejected supporters.
Just after 10 p.m., U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, Oliver and Murphy’s wife Tammy Snyder Murphy addressed the throngs of supporters — including former New Jersey governor Jon Corzine — who gathered to celebrate Murphy’s win in Asbury Park, New Jersey.
And at 10:20 p.m., Murphy took the stage, starting off with an oft-repeated campaign pledge.
“I’ve got your back. I said it in June, and I’m so grateful to say it today. You’ve always had mine,” Murphy said, to the crowd’s whoops and hollers. “Tonight we declare the days of division are over. We will move forward together.”
He added: “I am extremely humbled, yet grateful and proud, to accept the responsibility you have given to me to serve as the next governor of the great state of New Jersey. It won’t be easy, and it certainly won’t be overnight. But let there be no doubt … New Jersey is coming back!”
He pledged to fund women’s health, make “sensible” gun safety laws, reform criminal justice, and “quit demonizing” organized labor.
And he didn’t tap-dance around what he said his victory signalled about Trump, vowing to “elevate the level of public conversation” and “push back against the mean winds blowing at us from Washington, D.C.”
“Tonight, New Jersey sent an unmistakable message to the rest of the nation: We are better than this,” Murphy said. “We will stand with steel spines and say: ‘With all due respect, you will not do this in the great state of New Jersey. It’s this simple … We will not be silent in the face of an all-out assault on the face of American values and on our Constitution.”
He addressed Muslims, disabled people, the LGBT community and others who Trump has singled out in controversial tweets and policies, saying: “This governor will have your back.”
Plenty of people didn’t hesitate to heap on the congratulations.
“We are proud to have a governor that will stand up for New Jersey’s women and families!” Planned Parenthood of New Jersey tweeted.
Human Rights Campaign JoDee Winterhof said: “Murphy made advancing LGBTQ equality a key part of his vision for the future of New Jersey, and his commitment to equality makes him a model for elected officials nationwide. HRC was proud to endorse Phil Murphy’s campaign, and we look forward to working with him in the effort to advance equality in the Garden State.”
Scott Rudder, president of the New Jersey CannaBusiness Association, which advocates for expanding access to medical and recreational cannabis, called Murphy’s victory “a win for medical cannabis patients as well as the first step in fixing decades of failed and unjust cannabis laws.”
Murphy has said he supports legalizing marijuana for recreational use, saying the state should tax sales of the drug. Guadagno, meanwhile, pledged to work to decriminalize marijuana, fining offenders rather than putting them in jail.
The race also had several independent candidates, including Gina Genovese, a former professional tennis player and former Long Hill, N.J., mayor; Seth Kaper-Dale, a Green Party candidate, community developer, and pastor of a Highland Park, N.J., church; Matthew Riccardi, a Constitution Party candidate and former Marine now in legal services; Peter Rohrman, a Libertarian candidate and former Marine who now works as an Internet network engineer; and Vincent Ross, an independent candidate from Edison, N.J..
New Jersey was one of just two states nationally with a governor’s race Tuesday. Virginia, where Democrat Ralph Northam beat Republican Ed Gillespie, was the other.