PRINCETON, N.J., Nov 3 (Reuters) - Democratic New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy narrowly fended off an election challenge from Republican former state lawmaker Jack Ciattarelli, returns showed on Wednesday, a day after voting ended in an unexpected nail-biter for the incumbent.
Murphy, 64, became the first Democratic governor in four decades to win re-election in New Jersey, even though registered Democratic voters outnumber Republicans by more than 1 million in the densely populated northeastern coastal U.S. state.
The incumbent struck a triumphant but politically inclusive tone in a brief victory speech he delivered at an Asbury Park convention hall to supporters chanting, "Four more years!"
"If you want to be governor of all of New Jersey, you must listen to all of New Jersey. And New Jersey, I hear you," he told the crowd.
Unofficial returns posted by the Associated Press and cited by the New York Times and other media outlets pronouncing the victory for Murphy showed him clinching 50.03% of the vote, compared with 49.22% for Ciattarelli, with 90% of ballots counted.
There was no immediate word from Ciattarelli conceding defeat, and his campaign spokesperson, Sami Williams, posted a tweet criticizing the media for calling the race when it did.
"With the candidates separated by a fraction of a percent out of 2.4 million ballots cast, it’s irresponsible of the media to make this call when the New Jersey Secretary of State doesn’t even know how many ballots are left to be counted," she wrote.
Murphy has presided over a political shift to the left in the state, including new taxes on millionaires, tougher firearms restrictions, a higher minimum wage and paid sick leave. He has also defended his robust public health measures aimed at curtailing the coronavirus pandemic, which emerged as a key point of contention in the race.
Ciattarelli, 59, who had trailed Murphy by up to 10 percentage points in some opinion polls, capitalized on widespread unpopularity with Murphy's aggressive mask requirements for schoolchildren.
The Republican had also focused much of his campaign on the state's high taxes, while accusing Murphy, a wealthy former Goldman Sachs executive, of being out of touch with the electorate.
New Jersey has trended steadily Democratic in recent years. The party won 10 of the state's 12 U.S. House of Representatives seats in 2020, and President Joe Biden carried the state over then-President Donald Trump last year by more than 15 percentage points.
Still, Ciattarelli's unexpectedly strong performance in New Jersey, and a Republican victory on Tuesday in Virginia's hard-fought gubernatorial race spelled trouble for Biden's party heading into next year's congressional elections. read more
Murphy trailed overnight in the returns but squeaked into the lead on Wednesday morning as the tabulation of the vote unfolded in several heavily Democratic counties.
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