With new infections now exceeding 1,500 daily and hospitalizations surpassing the 1,000-patient level for the first time since May, there can no longer be any doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic and Gov. Phil Murphy’s response will dominate completely the gubernatorial campaign.
And, with less than 70 days until the Nov. 2 election, it appears that Republican candidate Jack Ciattarelli is on the wrong side of the issue.
What seemed earlier this summer to be New Jersey’s emergence from the worst of the pandemic has been thwarted by a surging wave of infections caused by the virus’s delta variant.
While the overwhelming percentage of new cases are among those who’ve not yet been vaccinated, the prospect of losing control has moved Murphy to act incrementally to impose a mask-wearing mandate for all public and private school students and — in a major step — order that all teachers, staff and district employees as well as the state workforce accept vaccination or be required to submit to twice-weekly testing.
Ciattarelli reiterated his opposition to the masking requirement for students, arguing that the decision to wear or not to wear should be left exclusively to parents and that government should butt out.
Ciattarelli’s message will find a receptive audience among those who believe masks and vaccination mandates are an intrusion on their personal lives and an affront to sincerely held beliefs.
Highly problematic for Ciattarelli
Reaching beyond that audience and appealing to the broader electorate in the ideological center as well as to disgruntled Democrats — both of whom are vital to any statewide Republican success — is highly problematic.
He described Murphy’s order as a step toward another lockdown of the level which upended daily life, inflicted considerable economic harm, and drove small businesses into bankruptcy.
If recent polling is any indication, though, Ciattarelli is out of step with a distinct majority of New Jerseyans, 67% of whom favor the mask requirement for students and all school district staff.
The same polling revealed that less than half, however, would support across-the-board mandatory vaccinations, a step Murphy has yet to take and likely will not.
Murphy has taken every opportunity available to urge the unvaccinated to put aside their reservations — whatever they may be — in the higher interest of blunting the transmission of a highly contagious virus.
He has also urged the private sector to encourage, if not require, vaccinations for their employees.
Since the onset of the pandemic some 17 months ago, Murphy has maintained public support for his response, largely as a result of remaining focused on protecting public health and safety while carefully avoiding ideological or philosophical arguments over individual or constitutional rights of privacy.
Murphy’s consistent message
He’s been consistent in his messaging in placing a choice before the public: Accept and deal with the inconvenience and disruptions of social restrictions or accept the risk of falling victim to a vicious pathogen.
With more than 940,000 infected and 27,000 fatalities in the state, the majority opting for personal safety is not surprising. The overwhelming support for masking in schools couldn’t be clearer in indicating a deeply personal concern for the well-being of children, many of whom are not age-eligible for vaccinations.
Another casualty of the pandemic is a gubernatorial campaign centered on other issues of concern to voters and taxpayers.
The virus has denied a full-throated debate between Ciattarelli and Murphy over rising property taxes — consistently cited as the most troublesome issue to New Jerseyans — as well as state aid to local school districts, crime, economic growth, and a more welcoming business environment.
In recent days, Ciattarelli has traveled the state touting his plans for property-tax relief and reform, primarily through overhauling and replacing the current state aid formula for funding schools.
Whatever traction his proposals may have achieved — and they deserved attention, to be sure — faded quickly in the face of Murphy’s mask and vaccination mandates, forcing the Republican to respond.
The governor enjoys home-field advantage, the ability to control and frame the debate while — thanks to legislative sanction — retaining unilateral emergency authority to act in a public health crisis.
Elements of the struggle
Ciattarelli, already in a struggle to achieve higher name recognition — a common difficulty facing non-incumbents — will continue to attempt to attract attention to Murphy’s shortcomings but drawing public attention away from the pandemic will be a daunting task.
He can make a compelling case that Murphy, in four years, has accomplished little in the way of property-tax relief while homeowners struggle with bills which now exceed $9,100 a year on average and well beyond that in a growing number of municipalities.
He can argue that the property-tax system is inequitable, punitive and in need of major revision and replacement but that Murphy has been content to dump ever-increasing sums of state aid into a broken system and claim he’s wrestled the property-tax beast to the ground.
Under normal circumstances, a debate between the two over their competing plans and ideas to address the issue would be a priority. Not so, this year.
Heading into the fall and winter — when schools are reopened to in-person instruction and indoor gatherings become the norm — the continued spread of the delta variant is virtually guaranteed.
That guarantees also that a virus that was unknown less than two years ago will dictate and control the political environment.
If, as conventional wisdom has it, political success often depends on right place, right time, Murphy appears to occupy that place and time.