The bitter race for New Jersey governor didn’t end on Election Day.
In a shocker, the contest, once seen as a shoo-in for Gov. Phil Murphy, remained too close to call early Wednesday morning, with results so far showing the Democratic governor and Republican challenger Jack Ciattarelli less than a percentage point apart as the clock passed midnight.
Both campaigns cleared out of their Election Night parties with neither declaring victory or conceding, and it’s possible a winner may not be known for a day or so.
With 98% of precincts reporting, Ciattarelli was leading Murphy by about 42,200 votes, according to totals from the Associated Press. But thousands of votes have yet to be counted, and it’s unclear how many vote-by-mail and provisional ballots still have to be tallied.
N.J. ELECTION 2021: Local and state results
“We’re gonna have to wait a little while longer than we hoped,” Murphy told supporters in Asbury Park in a brief speech just after midnight. “We’re gonna wait for every vote to be counted. That’s how our democracy works.”
“We’re all sorry that tonight cannot yet be the celebration we wanted it to be,” the governor added. “But when every vote is counted — and every vote will be counted — we hope to have a celebration.”
Ciattarelli, a former member of the state Assembly, said “we want every legal vote to be counted.”
“I wanted to come out here tonight because I prepared one hell of a victory speech,” he told supporters in Bridgewater around the same time Murphy spoke. “I wanted to come out here tonight because we won. But I’m here to tell you that we’re winning.”
The race was far closer than a series of polls had predicted. Though Murphy saw his once-hefty double-digit lead disappear in recent polls, most surveys in recent days showed Murphy up anywhere from 4 to 11 percentage points. Ciattarelli never led in any public-opinion poll.
Murphy — who is seeking a second term after pushing the state in a more progressive direction — also had the advantage of registered Democrats outnumbering Republicans by more than 1 million in New Jersey, a state that has become increasingly bluer in recent years.
“You know those polls?” Ciattarelli told supporters Wednesday morning. “There’s only one poll that matters.”
Early results show Ciattarelli drawing large totals in Republican strongholds, such as Ocean County — where he outperformed the results of the last Republican governor, Chris Christie, in 2009. Meanwhile, Murphy was underperforming in areas of the state he won in 2017, including Gloucester and Middlesex counties.
Murphy is aiming to become the first Democrat in 44 years to be re-elected the Garden State’s governor. Brendan Byrne was the last to do so, in 1977.
Ciattarelli is trying to return the governor’s office to the Republican Party four years after Murphy succeeded the term-limited Christie.
A Ciattarelli win would send a jolt through state and national politics as Republicans seek to win back Congress next year.
New Jersey was one of only two states to hold a gubernatorial election this year. The other was Virginia, where Glenn Youngkin, a Republican, defeated former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat.
Both races had national overtones. President Joe Biden’s approval ratings have dropped in recent months, which threatened to dampen Democratic turnout in New Jersey, a state the Democratic president won by 16 percent points last year. A Monmouth University poll from last month found Biden’s approval numbers underwater in the Garden State.
Republicans, meanwhile, boasted of strong enthusiasm and momentum heading into Election Day. That’s even as Murphy tried to link Ciattarelli to former President Donald Trump, who remains popular with the Republican base but is widely unpopular in Democratic-leaning New Jersey.
The entire New Jersey Legislature was also on the ballot Tuesday, but many of those races have yet to be called, either.
The state’s voting setup changed substantially from last year. Instead of pretty much all mail-in ballots, people could vote by mail, vote early in person, or show up at the polls on Tuesday.
Election officials disclosed Monday that about 700,000 of New Jersey’s 6.57 million registered voters had cast their ballots by mail or early voting as of Sunday. That may have contributed to inconclusive results during the early going.
“Reporting is slower than usual due in part to more (and larger) equipment having to be transported back to the Board of Elections,” said Angela Rosa, deputy clerk in Sussex.
The Associated Press and NJ Advance Media staff writer Joe Atmonavage contributed to this report.
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