TRENTON — New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy started 2020 with middling poll numbers, weak name recognition and fraught relationships with members of his own party. A year later, the Democrat has consolidated his power, won approval for his biggest policy proposal and sustained a pandemic-era approval rating above 60 percent.
But Murphy’s success in securing a second term in November could hinge on whether his greatest political strength — his response to the coronavirus — becomes his biggest weakness. The result will serve as barometer to three dozen other governors facing their own reelection battles in the 2022 midterms.
New Jersey has the highest per-capita death toll from Covid-19 in the U.S., and state GOP leaders have spent months sharpening messaging that blames Murphy for the massive death toll inside the state’s nursing homes and long-term care facilities, where 7,700 people have died since the virus arrived in the state in March.
Basic government services like the Motor Vehicles Commission and unemployment benefits have also suffered. And a bumpy vaccine rollout has become a feast for Republicans aiming to take back the New Jersey statehouse three years after Chris Christie termed out.
“His decisions cost the lives of veterans and seniors in our nursing homes,” former state Assemblymember Jack Ciattarelli, the only major Republican candidate running against Murphy, said in an interview. “His decisions have closed three out of 10 businesses, including mom-and-pop shops that have been in families for generations. His decisions have kept our children out of school, with significant learning loss. And his decisions have now botched the rollout of the vaccine.”
As one of just two states with a gubernatorial election this year — and the only one with an incumbent on the ballot — New Jersey will offer a test case for what the biggest health crisis in more than a century means for those in power at the state level. It will be the first statewide election in the nation to examine public views on the vaccine rollout and the first to measure the popularity of Democratic leaders now that former President Donald Trump is out of office.
Murphy’s leadership early in the crisis — a reassuring media presence, albeit overshadowed by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo — vaulted him into high esteem with New Jersey voters as his poll numbers reached into the 70s in April.
The former Goldman Sachs executive who served as ambassador to Germany was still unknown to many New Jerseyans when the pandemic hit. But residents paid attention to him once it did. Livestreams of Murphy’s events, which typically had viewership in the low hundreds, were regularly watched live and online by thousands of viewers.
Even with a comparatively limited national profile, what emerged was a congenial alternative to Cuomo.
Murphy refers to those caught flagrantly violating the state’s social gathering limits as “knuckleheads.” Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli is “the woman who needs no introduction.” And while Trump was a frequent punching bag for many Democratic leaders, Murphy took pains to temper criticism when New Jersey and its neighbors were suffering an outbreak far worse than most other states.
Cuomo’s star has begun to fade as his coronavirus policies face deeper examination. Murphy’s critics believe the New Jersey governor will face the same reckoning and they’ve been peppering him with criticism over the vaccine distributions effort in New Jersey.
Like many states, New Jersey’s rollout has been mired by technical boondoggles, long lines and, most critically, a limited supply of vaccines, but Republicans have zeroed in on the administration’s decision to include prison inmates and smokers among those who qualify for the latest round of vaccinations.
“It almost seems as though his vaccine roll out policy is simply this: If you want to get vaccinated, start smoking and get arrested,” Ciattarelli said.
According to a top Murphy ally, expect the pro-Murphy messaging to focus on the post-pandemic economic recovery and bringing back a “sense of normalcy.”
“In my opinion, that’s where I think the electorate is focused and is worried less about the inside blame game that Trenton politicians oftentimes want to play,” said Brendan Gill, who managed Murphy’s first campaign for governor and helps run a pro-Murphy outside group.
Gill said he thinks the public has already cast its judgment on Murphy’s handling of the pandemic and that it’s positive.
Ciattarelli has plenty of time to hone his attacks, with his only serious gubernatorial rival having unexpectedly dropped out of the race last month. That means he’ll have an easier time avoiding talking about Trump — a toxic political figure in New Jersey politics outside of its red redoubts — while training his fire on Murphy.
“He’s a house built without a foundation,” Ciattarelli consultant Chris Russell said of Murphy. “I don’t know that people know anything about him other than the pandemic, at this point. And as that becomes more and more of a front-and-center type of discussion, that’s where he’s going to be the weakest. There’s a lot of time between now and November to do that.”
The campaigns themselves are likely to be evenly matched, as they’re both participating in a state public financing program that limits how much they can spend in the general election to $15.6 million. Murphy is likely to have an advantage when it comes to outside money, as Democrats have long controlled the state and because of his own background as a former Goldman Sachs executive and prolific fundraiser.
Murphy is also helped by New Jersey’s deep shade of blue, with a million more registered Democrats than Republicans. But its voters have also shown a willingness to elect and reelect Republican governors.
The governor and first lady Tammy Murphy have already started raising funds, and when asked at a press conference last week, Murphy said some of the most recent frustrations could be chalked up to problems that are beyond the state’s control, most notably the slow pace of vaccine distribution to long-term care residents through a federal program administered by CVS and Walgreens.
“This is a never-before-lived experience for any leader — any citizen, frankly — in this country, never mind in this state,” he said. “Some of this stuff takes time, so I don’t think you can judge. When you look in the mirror, I think we’re our hardest critics.”
Republicans in the state Legislature have spent much of last year attacking Murphy over the state’s handling of outbreaks in nursing homes, where almost a third of New Jersey’s nearly 22,000 Covid deaths have been recorded.
New Jersey, alongside New York, was the epicenter of the global pandemic in March and April. Tests were scarce and clinicians were flying blind on how to best treat the disease.
Given how quickly and easily the virus spread, particularly before Murphy imposed mask mandates, it wasn’t long before nursing facilities and the state’s veterans homes were inundated with cases. Within two months of New Jersey recording its first case of Covid-19, more than 4,000 deaths had been linked to outbreaks in long-term care.
While a Murphy-appointed consulting firm later issued a report saying the state’s oversight of privately run nursing homes was spotty, the administration can’t make the same claims about lack of visibility into veterans homes managed by the state Department of Military and Veterans Affairs.
Administration officials reportedly played a role in developing punishments for veterans affairs workers who wore masks to work early in the pandemic, even as the Department of Health was only a few days away from issuing its own guidance on masks. State and federal investigators launched probes into how conditions at the facilities may have exacerbated viral spread.
State Senate Republicans — the minority in both legislative chambers — have been clamoring for a select committee to investigate the long-term care facilities and veterans homes since last spring. Efforts to make that a bipartisan effort went nowhere and, late last week, they announced they would conduct independent hearings into what they’ve dubbed a “flawed response.”
“If they were suddenly in charge of Covid response, they wouldn’t be able to find their backside with both hands,” said state Sen. Joe Vitale, (D-Middlesex), who chairs the Senate’s Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee. “You can’t have it both ways.”
Even with Trump out of office, Murphy’s allies believe the governor will continue to benefit from the state’s moderate GOP — Ciattarelli included — being pushed to the right as the electorate becomes a deeper shade of blue.
“They want to tell this story but they’re still bear-hugging the policies of President Trump and that’s not where New Jersey is, that’s not where the voters are,” Murphy’s campaign manager Mollie Binotto said in an interview. “We fully intend to bat down the things that aren’t true and lift up these comparisons.“
While it’s largely taken for granted in Trenton that the November election will be a referendum on Murphy’s response to the pandemic, that’s not a given, Monmouth University pollster Patrick Murray said.
“We have no idea of when this pandemic is going to lift,” Murray said. “In normal times, we have problems making guesses about what the future is going to hold for somebody.”
State Sen. Declan O’Scanlon (R-Monmouth), one of Murphy’s more vocal critics, has no doubt the election will be all about Murphy’s handling of the coronavirus.
“In a time of crisis, people just aren’t focused on accountability they’re focused on getting through tomorrow,” O’Scanlon said. “While the crisis is going on, it’s impossible for people to focus on anything else other than getting through it. Accountability comes after it.”
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