New Jerseyans have a new leader today — Phil Murphy, who has promised to be an activist governor that will focus on the economy and progressive policies for the next four years. They can expect a governor who will work to create a green economy, raise taxes on millionaires, legalize marijuana, invest in higher education, improve the transit system, and pay more toward pension obligations.
It was a big night for New Jersey Democrats, as voters provided a wave of support that ousted one Republican state Senator, Jennifer Beck (R-11) in favor of the Monmouth County Democratic Chairman Vin Gopal. In all, Democrats picked up one Senate seat and two Assembly seats.
But the 60-year-old Murphy, former ambassador to Germany, and his running mate, Essex County assemblywoman and former Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-34), were the big winners, as they overwhelmed Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno by double digits.
It did not come as a surprise that Guadagno, who garnered about 43 percent of the vote, lost by such a big margin due to the unpopularity of Gov. Chris Christie. As his second in command, she stood silently by his side for the past eight years, and by all accounts, Christie was the deciding factor in the election.
All polls showed that Christie, who has historically low popularity ratings, was the biggest issue in the New Jersey campaign — more so even than President Donald Trump. Indeed, internal polling by the Murphy campaign, which translated results into a word cloud, consistently showed that Christie as the dominant issue in the campaign by far.
The Christie factor
“It was a foregone conclusion,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth Polling Institute. “Many voters didn’t even pay attention to the campaign, they were just voting Democrat” down the line. Murphy doesn’t believe Guadagno, her positions, or even her connection to Christie was the deciding factor in the race. “This race was decided even before the nominees were chosen.”
Matthew Hale, professor of political science at Seton Hall University, didn’t quite agree that Guadagno’s ties to Christie were unimportant, but did believe Christie was the major factor in the race. Hale’s take was 60 percent Christie, 20 percent Murphy, and 20 percent Trump. Murphy smartly used Christie as a “prefix to Guadagno,” he noted. “It was always the Christie-Guadagno administration.”
Guadagno “was his silent partner” for the past eight years, Hale added, noting that fact was hard for Guadagno to escape, despite her insistence she was her own person. The fact that Christie seemed to belittle her in the campaign — disagreeing with some of her proposals — did not do her any favors, said Hale. “I think voters said, well, now we’re expected to believe she’s going to lead?”
Christie, however, was not mentioned by either candidate in their post-election speeches and it’s clear that his administration is in the rearview mirror.
Murphy waited until after 10 p.m. to greet supporters who gathered at Asbury Park’s iconic Convention Hall, saying “Greetings from Asbury Park” as he jumped on the stage. Murphy was introduced by his wife, Tammy, who called him her best friend and told the crowd how he really believes in the liberal values he has espoused in the campaign.
For Murphy’s part, he underscored his promises to reinvigorate the state economy and restore funding for public education.
‘From the bottom up’
“We will rebuild our state from the bottom up, and the middle out,” Murphy said.
He also rattled off a series of other issues that he pledged to give more emphasis than the outgoing Christie administration has, including gun safety, clean energy, and criminal-justice reform.
Murphy also didn’t hold back from talking about Republican President Donald Trump, saying New Jersey would now “push back against the mean winds blowing at us from Washington, D.C.”
“Tonight, New Jersey sent an unmistakable message to the entire nation: We are better than this.”
Although the New Jersey electorate clearly wants Murphy to resist the Trump agenda, Murray said Murphy was in for a “wake-up call” when he gets to Trenton. “Most voters didn’t pay attention to the campaign,” said Murphy. “In our polls, 85 percent did not know that either candidate had a property-tax platform.”
“Murphy has no mandate,” said Murray. “We’ll see what voters think when he starts his administration in January. That’s when voters will pay attention.”
There wasn’t much suspense at Guadagno’s party held at the Addison in Aberdeen, with CNN the first of the networks to call the race within minutes of polls closing at 8 p.m. It suddenly became more a matter of when Guadagno would give her concession speech.
The speech itself was quick by all standards, more a thanks to her staff and family than any confessional on her loss or call to move forward.
“We left no stone unturned, and we would not have done anything differently,” she told the subdued crowd.
Afterwards, she mingled with the guests in the room, thanking friends and supporters, full of smiles. At one point, the house band struck up the song “Take this Job and Shove It,” and Guadagno loudly applauded and clapped along.
Turnout appears to be historically low, as it was about 37 percent statewide late last night, with almost all districts reporting. That fact flies in the face of conventional wisdom, which says that Republicans are reliable voters and Democratic voters are not. In 2013, the last gubernatorial election, it was about 40 percent. The turnout rate ranged from 27 percent in Camden County to 48 percent in Hunterdon.
Regardless of turnout or what voters expect from their new governor, Murphy said he is ready to get to work. “We have 70 days to pull together our new administration, and it will look like our state (in diversity).” He promised to return New Jersey to its roots, by which he meant an innovative and “fairer” economy.
“New Jersey is coming back,” said Murphy.
— John Mooney, Colleen O’Dea, and John Reitmeyer contributed to this story.