In a troubling sign for Biden, New Jersey’s suburban voters ‘snap back’

A Republican almost became governor amid voter tax fatigue and scepticism of Biden plan

Phil Murphy this week became the first Democratic governor in New Jersey to win a second term in 44 years. But when the Associated Press finally called the race on Wednesday night, the historic achievement felt less like a triumph than a relief.

After winning the state by 17 percentage points four years ago, the former Goldman Sachs banker prevailed by a mere 29,000 votes over little-known Republican state assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli.

For his discomfort, Murphy can thank voters such as Ray and Tony Ferraioli, second-generation barbers, who were standing outside their salon in Fair Lawn, New Jersey on Thursday afternoon. Both voted for Murphy in 2017, but not this time.

“I’m tired of the Democrats,” says Ray (77), who – like many in this part of northern New Jersey – fumed about the state’s notoriously high property taxes. He pays $12,000 (€10,400) a year.


When he looks to Washington, and the sprawling infrastructure and social spending plan upon which Joe Biden is staking his US presidency, he sees only future inflation. "He wants to spend all this money. Where the hell is it going to come from?" Ray asks.

“This is a Democratic state,” says Tony, “and [Ciattarelli] is a Republican that’s making a lot of noise.”

Widespread concerns

In New Jersey – where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than a million and Biden easily carried the state last year – such concerns voiced by the Ferraiolis appear to be widespread. They are particularly acute in the suburbs, where many voters abandoned Donald Trump last year because they found him too extreme and unpredictable but now seem willing to rejoin the Republican cause.

Murphy campaigned on his success at pushing through long-sought progressive causes such as a millionaires’ tax and raising the minimum wage. He also touted his assertive handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.

But those appeared to generate scant enthusiasm among voters inflamed by concerns about taxes, inflation and Covid-induced disruptions to the US economy. Some also chafed at cultural issues aggravated by the pandemic and expressed unease that a weak president had been pulled too far from the centre by the party’s progressive wing. For such voters, Murphy’s determined effort to tie Ciattarelli to Trump only seemed to backfire.

“You’re going to bring that up to me when I have to pay $1.50 more to fill my thousand-gallon home heating oil tank?” one woman scowls. “That’s $1,500!”

That sort of fury is evident in southern New Jersey, where Democrat Steve Sweeney, the state’s most powerful legislator, has been toppled by Republican Ed Durr, a truck driver and novice candidate who filmed his campaign video on a smartphone.

Wake-up call

Mike DuHaime, a Republican strategist, calls this week’s result “a wake-up call for Murphy” and argues that Democrats misread the 2020 election: a victory propelled by suburban voters’ discomfort with Trump does not amount to a mandate to enact a sweeping progressive agenda.

He was particularly struck by the result in Morris County. The hedge fund home is the state's wealthiest county and a bastion of fleece vest-wearing, small "c" conservatives. Its well-educated voters last year "bolted from Trump World", as DuHaime puts it, making Biden the first Democratic presidential candidate to win Morris since Lyndon Johnson. But Ciattarelli trounced Murphy there this week, 56 per cent to 43 per cent.

“That’s the one, if I were advising the Democrats, that would scare me a bit,” says DuHaime. “You saw the Republicans’ base turn out just as much and then you saw the more moderate Republican areas snapping back to pre-Trump behaviour.”

Bob Goodsell, a semi-retired attorney in Madison, a Morris County village whose quaint Main Street is lined by small shops and American flags, sensed trouble for Murphy when he saw the rage of some local parents protesting at the governor’s requirement that children wear masks at school.

“There was kind of a single issue almost that some people ended up grabbing on to,” says Goodsell, who wishes that Murphy had been even more progressive. He speculates that the governor would have fared better if Democrats in Washington had passed Biden’s spending plan.

Ciattarelli also made inroads in traditionally Democratic Bergen County, which occupies the state’s northeast corner. The county is the state’s most populous, and is a jumble of Manhattan commuters, blue-collar millionaires and immigrants.

The Ferraiolis’ father left Rome in 1928 and made his way to Bergen after a stint in the Pennsylvania mines. “He was an [Italian] who couldn’t get a job shovelling shit,” as Ray puts it. He opened a barber shop in Fair Lawn, whose motto is “a great place to visit and a better place to live”.

Tax fatigue

The county’s diverse populations are all seemingly united by one thing: a fatigue at high taxes. That made a receptive audience for a Ciattarelli campaign that endlessly repeated Murphy’s observation from 2019 that, if taxes are your top priority, “we’re probably not your state” – a comment that Murphy claims was taken out of context.

What was common sense to some smacked of arrogance to others, particularly coming from a former investment banker and US ambassador to Germany. Among the latter is John (54), a financial adviser in Glen Rock, who is clad in a black tracksuit and puffing on a cigar while he walks his miniature dog down the main drag on a recent evening.

He confesses he did not know much about Ciattarelli before voting for him, calling him “a blank slate”. But John did not need much convincing.

The son of Greek immigrants and former Obama voter despairs over “endless discussions” of race. “It just permeates the entire [Democratic] party,” he complains.

Taxes are his over-riding concern. He is convinced they will have to rise further to pay for Biden’s agenda. “I just bought a place in Florida. I’ve got one foot out the door,” he says, claiming that some of his friends are also moving to the low-tax Sunshine State. “Those who can are doing it because what’s coming down the road is unconscionable.” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021