Mail-in ballots going out in campaign for NJ governor

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TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — The first ballots in this year's contest for governor must start to go out to voters by Saturday.

The return of the ballots will kick off voting in the Nov. 2 race between Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy and Republican former Assembly member Jack Ciattarelli.

Murphy is aiming to become the first Democratic incumbent to win reelection in 44 years. Ciattarelli faces an uphill climb in Democrat-leaning New Jersey, where polls show Murphy ahead. The governor also has a fundraising advantage.

The race has Murphy's record front and center, including his stewardship of the state during the COVID-19 outbreak. The state has had mixed outcomes during the pandemic. It was an early hotspot and until recently had the highest rate of deaths from the disease before Mississippi supplanted it. The state, though, has among the highest rates of vaccinations and while cases and hospitalizations spiked this summer, New Jersey hasn't seen levels like in the South and West.

Murphy also has accomplished many of the pledges he made while campaigning in 2017: legalizing recreational marijuana, instituting some free community college and pre-K, hiking the minimum wage to $15 an hour over time and fully funding the state's pension. He also increased school aid and fulfilled a campaign promise to raise taxes on incomes over $1 million.

His campaign points to polling showing the programs as popular.

Ciattarelli is betting that high-taxed residents are willing to abandon the governor for him. He's put making the state, which has among the highest property taxes in the nation, more affordable at the center of his pitch to voters. He says he wants to rewrite the state's school funding formula to lower property taxes, which finance education, but he has not said exactly how.

Known as a moderate in the Legislature who says he supports Roe v. Wade and a women's right to an abortion, Ciattarelli has tacked toward the right, at least rhetorically. Once a skeptic about Donald Trump, he now says the former president's policies worked. It's a balancing act given the strong support Trump has in the GOP base, though tough in a state that rejected the former president in two elections.

And unlike Murphy, who is concentrating on national issues with the aim of energizing the Democratic base, Ciattarelli has focused on state issues, hoping to lure independents and persuadable Democrats.

In addition to mail-in voting, New Jersey will have early in-person voting for the first time this year. It runs Oct. 23 through Halloween.

Mike Catalini, The Associated Press

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