New Jersey Democrats took solace Wednesday in their belief Gov. Phil Murphy, trailing for much of election night to Republican challenger Jack Ciattarelli, would pull into a narrow but consistent lead as ballots continued to be counted.
“Our internal numbers are crystal clear: When all the votes are counted, we’ll win,” Democratic State Chair LeRoy Jones said in a phone interview.
But, privately, the party was riven with shock, confusion and behind-the-scenes maneuvering. Democrats hadn’t detected a red undercurrent that propelled little-known legislative candidates to victory over previously well-entrenched Democrats and put Ciattarelli within striking distance of the governor. Their internal polling was dead wrong.
Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester), the state’s second most powerful elected official, appeared poised to lose reelection to a virtually-unknown and basically unfunded Republican, Ed Durr. Democratic state senators and their allies furiously worked the phones Wednesday to position themselves to replace Sweeney, who’s been in charge of the Senate for a record 12 years.
Sweeney’s likely defeat was a source of joy to Republicans as well as progressive Democrats, as he often allied with former Republican Gov. Chris Christie and was a key partner in enacting cuts to public worker benefits.
“On a positive note: Sweeney,” tweeted Barbara Buono, a former state senator who was the Democratic nominee against Christie in 2013, but got little help from New Jersey’s Democratic bosses.
The struggle for the party in New Jersey, long a Democratic stronghold with a willingness to put Republicans in the governor’s mansion, further deepens its setbacks nationally after Glenn Youngkin’s victory in Virginia Tuesday. Democrats in the battleground state also appear poised to lose control of the state House of Delegates just two years after flipping the chamber.
Similarly, in New Jersey, Democrats will likely see their 25-15 state Senate majority shrink by one to three seats and their 52-28 Assembly majority shrink by as much as eight.
Tuesday’s outcome — whether Murphy wins or loses — suggests efforts to hold onto suburban U.S. House seats that Democrats flipped during the Trump era are likely imperiled after the suburbs didn’t deliver for them without the former president on the ballot. The strategy Democrats across the country had been counting on to save them in next year’s midterms now appears unlikely to succeed.
And Murphy’s governance from the left, pushing abortion rights and holding himself out as an anti-Trumper, didn’t juice the party’s base — at least not enough to make inroads against the red groundswell.
Ciattarelli and Murphy took turns capturing narrow leads Wednesday as the vote tally continued, though political forecasters noted the as-yet uncounted ballots would likely favor the Democrat. That includes 56 machines in heavily Democratic areas of Essex County, where Newark is located, that had mistakenly not been counted on election night.
“Our team is focused on making sure all the legal votes are counted and our citizens can have confidence in the system,” the Ciattarelli campaign said in a statement, suggesting potential legal battles to come over what late votes are counted.
“Last night was a historic one for New Jersey Republicans,” Ciattarelli spokesperson Stami Williams said.
Brendan Gill, who managed Murphy’s 2017 campaign and worked for pro-Murphy independent expenditure groups this election cycle, said he’s confident Murphy will win. But even he acknowledged his party didn’t see this kind of election coming.
“Based on the public polling and what was largely being talked about, I don’t think there was anyone in the state who, as we headed into Tuesday, thought there was potential for substantial losses in the Legislature,” Gill said in an interview. “Nor was there, I think, the perception that the race was going to be this close.”
Most public polling showed Murphy with a lead of between six and 11 points.
Some Democrats were less generous to the governor.
Julie Roginsky, who was the first consultant Murphy hired in 2017, said Murphy took women, Black and Hispanic voters for granted. Roginsky broke with Murphy over allegations Gill engaged in misogyny and inappropriate behavior during the previous campaign, accusations Gill denied and attributed to a power struggle.
“He paid a lot of lip service to women. He bragged… that he had a female majority cabinet, how he had the first African American woman as lieutenant governor. But his inner circle did not have one woman in it, or hasn’t had one since I left in 2017,” Roginsky said in an interview, adding that Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver was not a regular presence at big campaign events.
With cut down majorities in both houses of the Legislature, Murphy’s push for progressive priorities like gun control and abortion rights — things Democratic legislative leaders were already squeamish about — may be dead.
“Governor Murphy and his allies mistook the Trump era for what the state really is. It’s not the ‘California of the East Coast,'” said Ciattarelli strategist Chris Russell, referring to a comment Murphy made in 2019. “No one here wants to be that.”
Russell — who expressed confidence in Ciattarelli’s chance — said even if Murphy pulls out a narrow victory, it will come at the cost to his agenda.
“Any mandate he would have, should he be successful, has been wiped away,” Russell said.