Murphy vs. Ciattarelli: N.J. governor’s race still too close to call

A person wearing an eagle on the back of their hoodie watches the incoming results for New Jersey at the election night party for Republican gubernatorial candidate Jack Ciattarelli, held at the Bridgewater Marriott hotel in Bridgewater, N.J., Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021

A person wearing an eagle on the back of their hoodie watches the incoming results for New Jersey at the election night party for Republican gubernatorial candidate Jack Ciattarelli, held at the Bridgewater Marriott hotel in Bridgewater, N.J., Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021. (Stefan Jeremiah/AP Photo)

The race for New Jersey governor is still too close to call, with Republican challenger Jack Ciattarelli holding a narrow lead over incumbent Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy.

The closeness of the race energized Republicans in the Garden State, while dashing the hopes of progressives that Murphy would become the first Democrat to win reelection in 44 years.

As of 1 a.m. Wednesday, Ciattarelli and Murphy were neck and neck, with Ciattarelli leading by a razor thin margin of less than 1% with more than 90% of precincts reporting. Early results showed strong turnout among Republicans in strongholds like Ocean and Monmouth counties, while heavily Democratic areas like Essex and Burlington counties were slower to report. The counting of mail-in ballots across the state also lengthened the process.

Increasingly enthusiastic supporters at Ciattarelli’s campaign headquarters in Bridgewater settled in for a long wait for the final results, while the mood at Murphy’s campaign outpost in Asbury Park had become decidedly muted as the night wore on, with many supporters beginning to leave.

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Many still packed in near the front of the stage when Murphy came out to address the dwindling crowd after midnight.

“We’re going to wait for every vote to be counted and that’s how our democracy works,” Murphy said.

Ciattarelli spoke to his crowd of supporters around the same time.

“We’ve got to have time to make sure every legal vote is counted,” Ciattarelli said, “And I’m confident that when they are, I can stand before you and not say we’re winning. I can stand before you and say, ‘We’ve won!’”

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Both candidates acknowledged there would be a long wait for final results, with Ciattarelli signaling he would not immediately accept a narrow defeat if the tide turns.

“We’ve already got to go in and begin the planning for what needs to be done to make sure that we can declare this victory, so you can watch us closely over the next week or so in order to certify this great win,” he said.

This is one of two closely watched governor’s races, along with Virginia, widely seen as a bellwether for how voters are feeling in the first major statewide races since President Joe Biden’s election in 2020.

Technical issues with New Jersey’s new e-poll books resulted in long lines and reports of voters leaving some locations without being able to cast ballots during the day. That prompted the ACLU of New Jersey and the state’s League of Women Voters to file a last-minute lawsuit seeking to keep the polls open until 9:30 p.m. A Mercer County Superior Court judge ultimately denied their request.

The race also marked the first time New Jersey voters could cast their ballots in person early, under a new law signed by Murphy in March.

The coronavirus was a major issue for New Jersey voters and most approved of the Murphy administration’s handling of the pandemic.

On the trail, Ciattarelli was outspoken against Murphy’s mask mandates in public schools and vaccination requirements for teachers and staff, and hammered Murphy over the COVID-19 deaths of 8,000 people in the state’s long-term care facilities, as well as the treatment of women in his administration and first gubernatorial campaign. Murphy and Ciattarelli also sparred over issues such as systemic racism, property taxes, and funding for education.

In the days leading up to the general election, polls showed a tightening race, with Murphy leading Ciattarelli within 10 points. Murphy had spent the final days campaigning with major Democratic Party figures from former President Barack Obama to U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, in hopes of becoming the first incumbent Democratic governor to win reelection since Brendan Byrne in 1977.

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