In campaign tour, governor takes his coattails out for a road test

Gov. Phil Murphy hit the hustings this weekend in advance of Tuesday’s Assembly election, embarking on a four-day campaign swing that, between the first-term Democrat and his wife, Tammy, would include 40 stops across the state.

The election is forecast to be a low-turnout affair, the first since 2015 when the 80 seats in the lower house of the state Legislature were at the top of the ballot. A mere 22% of registered voters went to the polls then and, even though his party’s majority among lawmakers is not thought to be at risk, Murphy said he was taking nothing for granted.

“Tomorrow, just by the configuration of the ballot, is typically a low-turnout election,” he said Monday at Bridgewater-Raritan High School. “So your vote always counts, but tomorrow it counts even a little bit more.”

Four districts are considered most in play — Districts 1 and 8 in South Jersey, and 21 and 25 in the north.

The marquee race is District 21, which covers parts of Union, Morris, and Somerset Counties, where Republican Minority Leader Jon Bramnick and his running mate Nancy Munoz are being challenged by Democrats Lisa Mandelblatt and Stacey Gunderman. Two conservative Republicans are also on the ballot as third-party independents and could siphon votes away from the moderate Republican incumbents.

Bramnick said this weekend the Democrats didn’t want Murphy in their district, echoing party strategists who have called the legislative races a midterm referendum on the first two years of the progressive governor’s tenure.

On Monday, the governor said Monday he’s OK with that.

“It’s certainly at least partly a referendum, and we welcome that because we like where we’re headed,” said Murphy, whose weekend tour included a stop at the Westfield train station in Bramnick’s district with fellow Democrat Tom Malinowski. “We inherited a mess. We said we would stand for a stronger and fairer New Jersey that works for everybody, that we would be for the middle class, the working families, the folks like I was growing up, hoping someday to get into the middle class. And I think we have done what we said we would do: investing in education, by example of today, we will fix NJ Transit if it kills me — and it might — I just hope not at this moment.”

Monmouth University pollster Patrick Murray doubts that Murphy will be a big factor in the race.

“Phil Murphy probably neither helps nor hurts the cause at this point. There are other entities that are much more important right now in voters’ minds, that includes the current president, Donald Trump. It also includes the former governor, Chris Christie, even though we’re a couple years removed from him as governor. He still has a significant impact on how the Republican brand is seen here in New Jersey,” Murray said.

Assembly Democrats currently enjoy a 54-26 majority in what is considered a reliably blue state, where 977,000 more voters have registered as Democrats than Republicans, according to the most recent figures from the state Division of Elections. Nearly 40% of voters are not affiliated with any party, while 38% are registered Democrats, 22% are Republicans and 1% have chosen a third party.

Last week there was some question among observers whether Murphy would campaign at all for Democratic candidates in tight races. That question has been answered. How much it will have helped remains to be seen.

“A lot of my energy, and my wife’s and our colleagues’ energy, has been devoted at getting people fired up to get out there to vote tomorrow,” he said, noting that some 600 to 700 people had been on hand for a stop in Rutherford Monday morning. “That’s why they play the game. This is the night before the game and we’re going to know a lot more tomorrow night than we know today.”