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3 things to watch as the New Jersey governor’s race enters the homestretch

Gov. Phil Murphy is maintaining a double-digit lead over Republican Jack Ciattarelli in public polls. Here's what you need to know.

New Jersey Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy, left, and Republican gubernatorial nominee Jack Ciattarelli.
New Jersey Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy, left, and Republican gubernatorial nominee Jack Ciattarelli.Read moreMiguel Martinez; Steven M. Falk / Staff Photographer

Labor Day marks the traditional start of campaign season as more voters start to tune in two months before Election Day. But in his underdog race to unseat New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, Republican nominee Jack Ciattarelli has already spent much of 2021 churning out attack ads and campaigning across the state.

“Given the fact that [Ciattarelli] had to get more well-known, and there will be early voting this year, waiting until after Labor Day wasn’t an option,” said Chris Russell, a Ciattarelli campaign strategist.

Murphy, the Democratic incumbent, has the advantage of name recognition, a surge in Democratic voter registrations, and relatively high approval ratings. He’s said little about the election himself in recent months. But that will likely change soon.

A poll last month showed Murphy maintaining a double-digit lead over Ciattarelli, an entrepreneur and former assemblyman from Somerset County.

But incumbency often doesn’t translate to victory for Democratic governors of New Jersey. If Murphy wins a second term in November, he would be the state’s first Democratic governor in decades to do so. Democrats far outnumber Republicans in New Jersey, but there are 2.4 million independent voters in the state, almost as many as there are Democrats.

Here are four things to watch as the campaigns heat up:

Will Murphy hit back?

Ciattarelli has spent months attacking Murphy’s liberal policies, the state’s economy, and even Murphy’s New Jersey bona fides — portraying the former Goldman Sachs executive as an out-of-touch millionaire. One ad focused on Murphy’s recent family vacation to their Italian villa, with Ciattarelli telling an audience at a South Jersey town hall meeting that, in his family, “we go to the Jersey Shore!”

Though Murphy’s campaign frequently slams Ciattarelli’s statements and positions, Murphy himself has all but ignored Ciattarelli — a standard playbook for incumbents widely expected to win.

» READ MORE: Jack Ciattarelli wants to make his campaign against Phil Murphy about who the real ‘Jersey guy’ is

In his first TV ad before the June primary, Murphy touted such achievements as raising the minimum wage. His coronavirus briefings, which last year introduced him to people who were unfamiliar with him before, gave him a regular platform to speak directly to voters.

As Election Day approaches, what shape will Murphy’s campaign take?

On TV, Ciattarelli has the airwaves to himself so far. He’s spent more than $750,000 on TV ads since the primary, according to the advertising tracking firm AdImpact. Murphy’s campaign has yet to air general election TV ads.

Will coronavirus politics stay center stage?

Murphy has gained popularity since his 2017 election, largely because voters approve of his crisis response. Though his approval ratings have slipped since last year, polls show that most voters still see the pandemic as their top concern. And close to half of them said they trusted Murphy’s ability to handle it, according to a recent poll.

With the delta variant surging, COVID-19 is back in the spotlight. Murphy last month announced a mask mandate for students and teachers, and said teachers and school staff must be vaccinated or undergo regular testing.

Local and national polls indicate broad support for those policies, but some communities are divided, and protests by anti-mask groups have erupted in recent months.

» READ MORE: Diane Allen was a moderate N.J. Republican. She sounds a bit different running for lieutenant governor.

Ciattarelli says parents should decide, pointing to data showing that most children do not become seriously ill from the virus and saying masks hinder kids’ development. At an August town hall meeting in Gloucester County, Ciattarelli’s criticism of the mask mandate drew the loudest and longest applause of the night.

And although New Jersey has ranked high in vaccine rollout, Ciattarelli will keep reminding voters of the state’s high rate of death in nursing homes under Murphy, and policies that resulted in sending infected patients to the group homes where they lived. Murphy has said health officials directed homes to separate COVID-19 patients and to request help if isolating those patients was not possible.

New Jersey’s long-term care deaths remain under investigation by the U.S. Justice Department.

Who will win the economic debate?

Ciattarelli is pledging to “fix New Jersey,” saying high taxes, a struggling economy, and failing services are making the state unlivable. He’s drawn a contrast between himself and the wealthy governor by quoting a Murphy comment from 2019: “If you’re a one-issue voter, and tax rate is your issue … we’re probably not your state.”

“It was jarring to hear him say that, because for the people who live here, clearly taxes are an issue,” said Russell. “For him to say that, it tells people he has no intention of trying to fix this problem.”

But Murphy has cast himself as a champion for middle- and working-class residents, raising wages and enacting a paid sick-leave law. After raising taxes on millionaires last year, Murphy’s administration used proceeds to send $500 checks to middle-class families. Republicans including Ciattarelli called the rebates, which arrived with a message from Murphy, an election-year gimmick.

Some say Murphy’s public health restrictions harmed the economy. New Jersey was the last state in the country to reopen indoor dining last year, and Atlantic County, home to the Shore’s casino industry, suffered the greatest job loss in the nation of the largest 357 counties. The state’s unemployment rate (7.3% in July) is higher than the national average (5.2% in August).

But expect Murphy’s campaign to focus on his administration’s investments, such as fully funding the state pension for the first time in 25 years, providing businesses with hundreds of millions in coronavirus assistance, and sending $580 million in new aid to schools.