Will Murphy Turn to the Center After Barely Winning Re-Election in N.J.?

Will Murphy Turn to the Center After Barely Winning Re-Election in N.J.? 1

The Democratic governor won re-election in a surprisingly close race that has raised questions about his ability to enact liberal measures on gun control and abortion.

For much of his first term, Gov. Philip D. Murphy of New Jersey governed his largely suburban state as a steadfast liberal, winning an increase in the minimum wage, a tax hike on the wealthy and the legalization of marijuana.

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

Mr. Murphy’s narrow victory, combined with a Republican upset in the Virginia governor’s race and Republican gains in the New Jersey State Legislature, suggest the nation’s political winds may have shifted rightward. And that has raised a major question in Trenton: Will Mr. Murphy still push forward with liberal initiatives on issues like abortion and gun control, as he had once planned?

Republicans and even some Democrats say a left-leaning agenda will face stiff opposition, predicting that Mr. Murphy and Democratic legislators will become increasingly mindful of independent suburban voters whose party loyalty is famously fluid and whose political ideology tends toward the center.

The key to courting those voters will be to focus on “affordability,” some officials say, in particular, containing the state’s property taxes, which are among the nation’s highest.

“This is not that complicated,” said Assemblyman Jon M. Bramnick, a Republican who was elected Tuesday to the State Senate. “Most people are kind of in the middle.”

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

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

That could clear an easier pathway for the governor’s unfinished legislative priorities, some analysts and legislators say. Despite losing some seats, Democrats will still control both houses of the Legislature.

“Politically, it’s an incredible opportunity for Murphy,” said Julia Sass Rubin, a professor at 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.”

Still, the day after the election, few Democrats were talking much about Mr. Murphy’s most contentious policy goals: codifying abortion rights to protect against the possibility of a Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade; expanding gun control laws to allow victims to sue gun manufacturers; reducing long mandatory sentences for nonviolent crimes.

“We’re going to obviously revisit what we’ve been doing,” said Senator Nick Scutari, a Democrat from northern New Jersey who led the fight to legalize marijuana in the state and is seen as a contender to become the next Senate president.

Mr. Scutari, a former municipal prosecutor in Linden, N.J., said he expected more discussion about “kitchen table issues.”

“Making sure there’s a strong economy,” he said. “Good strong job prospects. Making sure the taxes are stable and we do provide services because of those taxes.”

George E. Norcross, an insurance executive and powerful Democratic power broker strongly allied with Mr. Sweeney, said the most potent issue in New Jersey has always been taxes.

“If you look at New Jersey history from a political way, you see Democrats and Republicans alternating as governors, and it always happens over the same issue, which is taxes,” Mr. Norcross said. “It’s taxes, taxes, taxes. And people move back and forth between parties in that regard, and that’s the way in which it historically has happened.”

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

But he said he anticipated the party “wanting to focus more” on bread-and-butter economic issues, as well as better communicating the benefits of Mr. Murphy’s progressive policies for working-class families.

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

“People need to hear that message more,” he added. “We have to be more focused on speaking to what we have delivered for working families and the bold vision going forward.”

On Thursday, Mr. Murphy spoke at a convention in Atlantic City, N.J., organized by one of his strongest allies, the New Jersey Education Association.

Mr. Ciattarelli, who has not conceded the race, had no public appearances. His campaign, however, did send out a fund-raising letter.

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

Mr. Murphy’s lead over Mr. Ciattarelli had grown to about 2 percentage points by Thursday afternoon, and counties were still tabulating mail votes and provisional ballots. Most of the uncounted ballots are in counties with heavy Democratic majorities; The Associated Press called the race for Mr. Murphy on Wednesday evening.

Though Mr. Murphy won more votes on Tuesday than he did in 2017, Democratic turnout in many parts of the state — in the suburbs as well as in heavily immigrant communities and poor rural areas — was lackluster.

The depressed turnout was partly attributed to a series of public polls that predicted Mr. Murphy would coast to victory — and proved wildly inaccurate.

On Thursday, Patrick Murray, the director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, a widely trusted polling outfit, apologized publicly to both candidates, their supporters and to voters for survey information “that was at the very least misleading.”

“I blew it,” Mr. Murray wrote in a letter published by nj.com.

“If you are a Republican who believes the polls cost Ciattarelli an upset victory or a Democrat who feels we lulled your base into complacency, feel free to vent,” he said. “I hear you.”

But several progressive activists said that Tuesday’s turnout should be seen as a mandate to finally deliver on long-promised policy goals in Trenton and in Washington, including creating a path to citizenship for more immigrants, making child care affordable and addressing inequity within the criminal justice system.

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

“You need registered voters to be enthusiastic about turning out,” Ms. Torres said. “So the question becomes: How do you mobilize them? By delivering on promises made on the campaign trail.”

Mr. Ciattarelli campaigned on issues popular with voters who supported former President Donald J. Trump, and his strong showing on Tuesday also appeared to be sending a message to mainstream Republicans. In the State Assembly, Republicans made a leadership change on Thursday, choosing a conservative lawmaker, John DiMaio, over a moderate who supports abortion rights and gun control — and who appeared to have locked in the votes to lead the caucus before Election Day.

“New Jersey does not want to be the California of the East Coast,” said Senator Michael Testa Jr., a Republican lawyer who led Mr. Trump’s re-election campaign in the state. “New Jersey is not such a blue state.”

Nick Corasaniti contributed reporting.