Will Murphy turn to center after barely winning re-election in the NJ?

For much of his first term, Governor Philip D. Murphy of New Jersey ruled his largely suburban state as a steadfast liberal, winning a minimum wage hike, higher taxes on the rich, and legalization of marijuana.

But when he ran for re-election this year on that unabashedly leftist record, Mr Murphy, a Democrat who just weeks ago seemed destined for an easy win, came surprisingly close to losing facing a conservative Republican, Jack Ciattarelli.

Mr Murphy’s narrow victory, combined with a Republican upheaval in the Virginia governor’s race and Republican gains in the New Jersey state legislature, suggest the country’s political winds may have turned to the right. And it raised a major question in Trenton: Will Mr. Murphy continue to push Liberal initiatives forward on issues such as abortion and gun control, as he had already planned?

Republicans and even some Democrats say a left-wing agenda will face stiff opposition, predicting that Mr. Murphy and Democratic lawmakers will become increasingly attentive to independent suburban voters whose party loyalty is notoriously fluid and whose party loyalty is notoriously fluid. political ideology tends towards the center.

The key to wooing these voters will be to focus on “affordability,” say some officials, in particular, containing state property taxes, which are among the highest in the country.

“It’s not that complicated,” said Congressman Jon M. Bramnick, a Republican elected to the state Senate Tuesday. “Most people are pretty much in the middle. “

But where moderates may see the need for a course correction and increased attention to issues like the cost of living and safe streets, Mr. Murphy’s progressive allies speak primarily of opportunity.

Voters in South Jersey on Tuesday ousted the state’s second most powerful lawmaker, Senate Speaker Steve Sweeney, a Democrat who was also Mr Murphy’s main political rival. The loss of Mr Sweeney simultaneously created an unexpected power vacuum in the State House and eroded the influence of the most conservative part of the state – without making a significant dent in the majority of Democrats in Trenton.

This could open an easier path for the governor’s unfinished legislative priorities, some analysts and lawmakers say. Despite losing some seats, Democrats will still control both houses of the Legislature.

“Politically, this is an incredible opportunity for Murphy,” said Julia Sass Rubin, professor in the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University. “Sweeney keeping his seat and Murphy winning by 10 would be nowhere near as good.”

Yet, the day after the election, few Democrats were talking much about Mr. Murphy’s most controversial political goals: codifying abortion rights to protect against the possibility of a Supreme Court ruling overthrowing Roe v. Wade; expand gun control laws to allow victims to sue gun manufacturers; reduce long mandatory sentences for non-violent crimes.

“We’re obviously going to review what we’ve done,” said Senator Nick Scutari, a Democrat from northern New Jersey who has led the fight to legalize marijuana in the state and is considered a candidate to become the next president. of the Senate.

Mr Scutari, a former Linden, New Jersey city attorney, said he expected more talk about “kitchen table issues.”

“Make sure there is a strong economy,” he said. “Good solid job prospects. Make sure that taxes are stable and that we provide service through those taxes. “

George E. Norcross, an insurance executive and a powerful Democratic power broker with strong alliances with Mr. Sweeney, said the biggest problem in New Jersey has always been taxes.

“If you look at the history of New Jersey from a political perspective, you see Democrats and Republicans alternating as governors, and it always happens on the same issue, which is taxes,” Mr. Norcross. “These are taxes, taxes, taxes. And people come and go between parties in this regard, and that’s the way it has historically been. “

George Helmy, Mr Murphy’s chief of staff, said the governor’s economic agenda has always been rooted in making life more affordable for working families.

But he said he expected the party to “want to focus more” on basic economic issues, as well as better communicate the benefits of Mr. Murphy’s progressive policies to working-class families. .

“I think we need to continue to focus on affordability and the progress we’ve made for working families,” he said.

“People need to hear more of this message,” he added. “We need to focus more on what we have offered working families and the bold vision for the future.”

On Thursday, Mr. Murphy spoke at a convention in Atlantic City, NJ hosted by one of his most powerful allies, the New Jersey Education Association.

Mr Ciattarelli, who did not concede the race, made no public appearance. His campaign, however, sent a fundraising letter.

“This race is far from over,” we can read. “Our team makes sure that every legal vote is counted and that the will of the people is heard loud and clear.”

Mr Murphy’s lead over Mr Ciattarelli had slipped to around 2 percentage points by Thursday afternoon, and counties were still counting postal votes and provisional ballots. Most of the uncounted ballots are in counties with a strong Democratic majority; The Associated Press called the race for Mr. Murphy Wednesday night.

Although Mr Murphy won more votes on Tuesday than in 2017, Democratic participation in many parts of the state – in the suburbs as well as in heavily immigrant communities and poor rural areas – was poor.

The low turnout was partly attributed to a series of public polls that predicted Mr Murphy would win – and turned out to be grossly inaccurate.

On Thursday, Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, a trusted polling organization, publicly apologized to the two candidates, their supporters and voters for the survey information “which was misleading to say the least. “.

“I blew it up,” Murray wrote in a letter posted by nj.com.

“If you are a Republican who thinks the polls cost Ciattarelli an upset victory or a Democrat who thinks we have cradled your base in complacency, feel free to let off steam,” he said. “I hear you.”

But several progressive activists said Tuesday’s participation should be seen as a mandate to finally achieve political goals long-promised in Trenton and Washington, including creating a path to citizenship for more immigrants, making the affordable child care and addressing inequalities in criminal justice. system.

Amy Torres, executive director of the New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice, said the way to counter the low turnout was to give people a reason to believe lawmakers would keep their campaign promises.

“Registered voters need to be enthusiastic about participating,” Torres said. “So the question becomes: how do you mobilize them? By keeping the promises made during the election campaign.

Mr Ciattarelli campaigned on issues popular with voters who backed former President Donald J. Trump, and his strong performance on Tuesday also seemed to send a message to mainstream Republicans. In the State Assembly, Republicans changed leadership on Thursday, choosing a Tory lawmaker, John DiMaio, over a moderate who supports abortion rights and gun control – and who appeared to have blocked votes to lead caucus before election day.

“New Jersey doesn’t want to be California on the East Coast,” said Senator Michael Testa Jr., a Republican lawyer who led Mr. Trump’s reelection campaign in the state. “New Jersey is not such a blue state.”

Nick Corasaniti contributed reporting.

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