TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — New Jersey Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy and Republican Jack Ciattarelli were virtually deadlocked early Wednesday after a campaign centered on the incumbent’s progressive policies and handling of the pandemic.
The Associated Press has not declared a winner in the race as votes from Tuesday's election were still being tallied on a night that imparted some bad omens for Democrats. Incomplete returns showed Ciattarelli and the first-term governor were separated by about 1,200 votes out of more than 2.3 million cast.
Murphy had been leading in the polls, has a 1 million-voter registration advantage and had more cash in his campaign coffers than Ciattarelli in the final days of the race. But the Republican has far surpassed the Republican nominee from four years ago in fundraising and has seen the gap in public polls move in his favor — if only by a few points.
At Murphy's election night party in Asbury Park's convention hall, the crowd went from cheering early results reported on TV to milling around the cavernous venue and checking their phones. At Ciattarelli's camp in Bridgewater, the crowd was breaking out into periodic cheers.
At 12:30 a.m., Ciattarelli said he couldn't yet declare a victory because votes remained to be counted, but said he fully expected to make a victory declaration once that happens.
“We’ve sent a message to the entire nation. This is what I love about this state: Every single time it's gone too far off track, the people of this state have pushed, pulled and prodded it right back to where it needs to be," he told the crowd.
While a Ciattarelli win would send a jolt through state and national politics, a win by Murphy would also break some historical trends.
No Democrat has won reelection as governor in New Jersey since Brendan Byrne in 1977, and the party opposite the president's has won the New Jersey governorship going back to 1985.
An enthusiastic Murphy also appeared onstage, hopeful for a win.
“When every vote is counted, and every vote will be counted, we hope to have a celebration,” he said.
New Jersey does not have an automatic recount law, but the candidates are permitted to request one. The party that wants a recount has to file a suit in State Superior Court in the counties where they want to contest tallies. That has to be done within 17 days of Election Day.
Murphy has campaigned as a solid progressive, with a record to show for it. He signed bills into law that expanded voting access, provided for taxpayer-funded pre-K and community college, hiked the minimum wage to $15 an hour over time along with opening up the state to renewable energy like wind power.
Ciattarelli's campaign seized on comments Murphy made that New Jersey probably isn’t for voters whose top issue is taxes, casting the governor as out of touch with a concern many prioritize.
He also sought support from those who disagreed with Murphy's handling of COVID-19. At a recent campaign rally in Hazlet when someone in the audience asked about mandates, Ciattarelli said there'd be none under his administration — an allusion to mask and vaccination mandates.
He also implicitly criticized critical race theory in schools, saying that “we are not going to teach our children to feel guilty.” Critical race theory is a method of thinking of America’s history through the lens of racism that has become a political lightning rod of the Republican Party.
Polls showed Murphy got solid support for his handling of the COVID-19 outbreak, which hit New Jersey hard in early 2020 and resulted in the deaths of more than 25,000 people. About a third of those deaths occurred in nursing and veterans homes. But the state also excelled at getting people vaccinated and was quick to become one of the states with the highest percentages of eligible people to be fully vaccinated.
A lawsuit filed Tuesday evening by the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, based on social media posts and local news reports, alleged that dozens of voters were turned away from polls. In some places, that was because electronic tablets used to check in voters struggled to connect to the internet.
The suit, which had sought to extend voting until 9:30 p.m., was denied by the court, the civil rights organization said. A message seeking comment was left with the secretary of state’s office, which oversees elections in the state.
Also on the ballot Tuesday were all 40 seats in the state Senate and all 80 seats in the Assembly. Democrats control both chambers.
Voters were also asked two questions this year. One asked whether to allow betting on New Jersey college teams or teams from other states whose games are played in New Jersey.
They approved a second ballot question that will allow more organizations that are permitted to hold raffles to keep the money to support themselves.
AP writers Geoff Mulvihill in Cherry Hill and Wayne Parry in Bridgewater contributed to this report.
Mike Catalini, The Associated Press