Updated: Tuesday, November 7, 2017, 10:36 PM
ASBURY PARK, N.J. — Phil Murphy, a former Wall Street banker and diplomat who defined his candidacy in opposition to incumbent Gov. Christie, was elected the 56th governor of New Jersey on Tuesday.
Murphy, 60, a Democrat who has never held elective office, campaigned as an unabashed liberal who would eschew the Republican Christie’s pugnacious style and resist President Trump’s policies on issues such as health care and immigration.
Democrats also looked poised to retain or expand their majorities in the Legislature, likely making New Jersey the seventh state under full Democratic control.
Murphy, of Middletown, Monmouth County, defeated Republican Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, 58, who struggled to raise money and distance herself from her politically toxic boss.
“Tonight, New Jersey sent an unmistakable message to the entire nation: We are better than this,” Murphy told hundreds of supporters gathered at the Asbury Park Convention Hall, where Christie delivered his reelection victory speech four years ago.
Standing by his wife, Tammy, and their four children, Murphy added, “Governors will have never mattered more.”
Murphy will inherit a state that has underfunded everything from the pension system for public workers to schools to public transit. And he has promised to do better on all counts.
He will take office on Jan. 16 along with his lieutenant governor, Sheila Oliver, who will vacate her Essex County Assembly seat.
In addition to facing fiscal challenges, Murphy may have to repair relationships with some of the state’s most powerful Democrats, whose support he’ll need to advance his agenda.
Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester), who faced an onslaught of negative ads from the state’s largest teachers’ union, is said to be frustrated that Murphy didn’t push the union to back off.
Two sources said the Murphy campaign has also irked Assemblyman Craig Coughlin (D., Middlesex), the leading contender to be the chamber’s next speaker, by appearing to route tens of thousands of dollars to political groups controlled by Coughlin’s rival in the leadership race.
Murphy’s policy proposals read like a liberal wish list: He wants to nearly double the state’s minimum wage over time to $15, legalize (and tax) recreational marijuana, and offer free community college without means testing.
He also wants to “fully fund” pensions and schools, but details are murky as to how he’d pay for it.
Murphy announced his candidacy a full year before the Democratic primary and immediately lent his campaign $10 million.
He became the odds-on favorite in October 2016, when his chief rivals for the Democratic nomination, Sweeney and Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop, announced they wouldn’t run for governor.
Murphy went on to spend $20 million of his own money in the primary and won easily, with the full support of the party apparatus.
For her part, Guadagno, also of Monmouth County, ran for months on a pledge to reduce property taxes and a warning that Murphy would raise every tax he could. In the campaign’s final month, she took a hard-line stance on immigration, but her turn to the right failed to generate the wave of GOP base voters she needed to win.
“Because of Gov. Christie’s incredible unpopularity, voters in the state of New Jersey were essentially unwilling to consider electing another Republican governor at this point,” said Brigid Harrison, a professor of political science at Montclair State University.
Christie, who served the maximum two terms, went from winning reelection with 61 percent of the vote in 2013 to sub-20 percent approval ratings as he prepares to leave office.
According to exit polls analyzed by CNN, Murphy won 84 percent of nonwhites. Just four years ago, Christie won 51 percent of the Hispanic vote and 21 percent of the black vote.
Although Guadagno wasn’t personally close to Christie and had a more soft-spoken approach, she couldn’t shake his shadow. On paper, she was the governor’s second-in-command. So if she took credit for job growth, Guadagno couldn’t dodge the rest of the Christie record.
“You’ve been beside him every step of the way,” Murphy said in their first debate.
Just as important: Voters weren’t paying close attention to the race. A majority of likely voters didn’t know enough about either candidate’s political views to say whether they were in line with New Jersey residents, according to a Nov. 1 Monmouth University poll. More than one-third hadn’t even formed an opinion on the candidates.
Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans in New Jersey by about 880,000. A plurality of voters is unaffiliated with either party, but fewer independents vote in non-presidential years.
Pollsters were predicting record-low turnout; it was 40 percent in 2013.
Although Democrats celebrated their return to the governor’s mansion, their party is still fractured along North-South divisions and other feuds.
Murphy may have made the problem worse. Sweeney and his coalition of South Jersey Democrats — led by power broker George E. Norcross III, the hospital and insurance executive — are at political war with the New Jersey Education Association, which backed a Republican in the Third District Senate race.
The NJEA said Sweeney had broken a promise to secure funding for public workers’ pensions.
The teachers’ union endorsed Murphy and will expect his support for its initiatives, Trenton observers said. As Senate president, Sweeney can thwart those efforts. For example, an NJEA-friendly education commissioner would need to be approved by the Senate.
Murphy may also have strained relations with another key ally, according to two people familiar with the matter. In the Legislature’s lower chamber, Coughlin, the favorite to be the next speaker, is curious why the Democratic Governors Association donated about $70,000 to county and municipal parties controlled by the current speaker, Vincent Prieto of Hudson County.
Prieto wants to run for another term.
No municipality in any other county received a contribution from the DGA, according to the group’s most recent campaign-finance report.