This time last year, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy wasn’t holding briefings memorializing lives lost to the coronavirus or excoriating “knuckleheads” in viral videos for not wearing face masks. Some voters barely paid attention to their governor, a mild-mannered, multimillionaire former Goldman Sachs executive: In one pre-pandemic poll, one in five New Jerseyans had no opinion of him.
But by the close of 2020, Murphy, a Democrat, was a regular guest on national news shows, his COVID-19 announcements streamed millions of times. His approval ratings soared early in the pandemic, and more than 60% of residents surveyed in November still approved of his crisis response.
“Whether they like it or not, they’re probably more familiar with me,” Murphy said last month. “Given that we’re all going through this together.”
As Murphy seeks reelection in November, Democrats say his heightened popularity, a surge in Democratic voter registrations, and a broad coalition of support will make him tough to beat. They also point to legislative achievements like raising the minimum wage, enacting paid sick leave, and hiking taxes on residents who earn more than $1 million a year.
Democratic strategist Joshua Henne said Murphy’s low-key personality was an effective counterpoint to President Donald Trump’s bluster as the pandemic upended daily life. Murphy’s COVID-19 briefings also introduced him to people who wouldn’t normally tune into state government a year before an election.
“In a time of great uncertainty and worry, his regular appearances and straight talk showed strong leadership and a steady, soothing presence,” he said.
Republicans see the political upshot of Murphy’s pandemic response differently. The virus has killed almost 18,000 New Jerseyans, and the death rate in nursing homes last year was among the highest in the country. Murphy kept restrictions on gyms and restaurants in place longer than most states, angering some in the small business community. New Jersey’s unemployment rate recently topped 10%, with Atlantic City suffering the worst job loss in the nation. And the 2020 elections showed that the electoral politics of the pandemic can be complicated.
Murphy declined to comment for this story, with aides saying he was focused on vaccine distribution efforts. His campaign announced last week that a fund-raising drive led by first lady Tammy Murphy pulled in $3.5 million over the last three months of 2020, the maximum allowed for the June Democratic primary under the state’s public financing program.
One of only a couple gubernatorial races in 2021, the New Jersey campaign will be closely watched as an early referendum on President-elect Joe Biden’s administration. It was Chris Christie’s victory in the 2009 governor’s race that heralded the Republican wave to come the next year.
New Jersey hasn’t reelected a Democratic governor since 1977. Republican Jack Ciattarelli, a former state assemblyman, has launched a campaign arguing that Murphy has taken a tyrannical approach to coronavirus restrictions and worsened the state’s already strained finances.
Though Republican strongholds remain in parts of the state, registered Democrats greatly outnumber Republicans in New Jersey, and Biden beat Trump there by more than 15 percentage points. But Chris Russell, a GOP strategist working on Ciattarelli’s campaign, said Murphy’s higher profile won’t be a universal asset. Business owners and parents of schoolchildren lost patience as 2020 wore on, he said, and many are now questioning the science behind Murphy’s restrictions.
“There’s a lot of voters who are going to think that he did the right thing initially, but has since overstepped that authority,” Russell said. “All the people who voted for Biden, it’s a mistake to assume those votes are locked down for Murphy. People will be looking for outlets to their frustration, and they’re going to have the opportunity to make a difference on the ballot.”
Former U.S. Sen. Robert Torricelli, a Democrat who represented New Jersey for 20 years in Congress, said that in a “toxic” political climate, the pandemic gave Murphy a platform to showcase leadership skills that helped him build support.
“COVID was a make-or-break moment for governors, and the Trump administration was a tremendous unifier,” Torricelli said. “What might have been seen as difficulties for him have faded away, and he now leads a largely united Democratic Party.”
A crucial internal party reconciliation took place last year after Murphy spent years in a political war with George Norcross, an insurance executive who is the de facto leader of the South Jersey Democratic machine, and State Senate President Stephen Sweeney, a longtime Norcross friend and ally.
One feud stemmed from a Murphy-ordered task force that alleged companies with ties to Norcross were awarded millions more in state tax credits than they deserved. At one point Norcross called Murphy “politically incompetent” and said he and Tammy Murphy thought they were “King and Queen of England.”
But in recent months, peace settled over the dueling Democratic factions. Sweeney has praised the governor in recent months. In September, when announcing a deal with Murphy on a millionaire’s tax that Sweeney previously resisted, Sweeney said the pandemic changed his priorities.
And just before Christmas, Murphy announced a new Sweeney-approved tax incentive bill to update the former program, one that will create about $15 billion in tax credits for businesses.
But as Murphy shored up support with the South Jersey establishment, he disappointed other backers. The tax bill, fast-tracked through the Democratic-controlled legislature, offers more money in incentives than what some liberals expected. Murphy has defended the bill, saying it imposes regulations that were missing from the previous program and will help the economy rebound.
Others say Murphy is leaning too far left. Amid economic devastation caused by the pandemic, Murphy and top lawmakers agreed to borrow $4.5 billion to avoid deep cuts and layoffs. Keith Davis, chairman of the Atlantic County Republican Committee, said Murphy will soon be forced to confront the state’s financial problems.
“People are frustrated by New Jersey having the highest rate of taxation, and this governor has not shown any interest in bringing them relief or making it a more competitive place for business,” Davis said. “If we have high unemployment going into the fall, I’m not sure people are going to remember the feelings of goodwill they had in the spring. They’ll remember being thrown out of work.”