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New Jersey voters will decide next week whether to reelect Gov. Murphy

NOEL KING, HOST:

New Jersey will vote for a governor next week. Governor Phil Murphy, a Democrat, is running for a second term. He faces a minor but daunting fact of history - even though the state is reliably blue, a Democratic governor hasn't been reelected since 1977. Here's Nancy Solomon from member station WNYC.

NANCY SOLOMON, BYLINE: New Jersey has 1 million more registered Democrats than Republicans. Yet there's one issue here that helps Republican candidates in statewide elections. Homeowners pay the highest property taxes in the nation, and Jack Ciattarelli brings that up every chance he gets, like in this recent debate.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JACK CIATTARELLI: If you don't mind a governor who says if taxes are your issue, we're probably not your state, if you don't mind a governor who says he wants to make New Jersey the California of the East Coast, vote for Phil Murphy.

SOLOMON: It's Republican playbook 101. Ciattarelli says Murphy is a tax and spend liberal. And if he's elected, he'll cut them. What's unusual this time around is that Murphy makes no bones about New Jersey being a high tax state. Instead of promising to cut them, Murphy told WNYC that residents get good value back.

PHIL MURPHY: That means the best public schools in America. It means among the best health care systems in America. It means a location second to none that we need to invest aggressively in.

SOLOMON: Murphy's honesty about taxes has picked up support from some unlikely quarters. Harry Hurley is the host of a conservative talk radio show for WPGG, which broadcasts in the Republican-leaning southern part of the state.

HARRY HURLEY: He's honest about what he believes. I will tell you that I had great respect for him. He campaigned saying he was going to raise certain taxes, and nobody does that. They lie. They lie to get elected and then they raise the taxes.

SOLOMON: Murphy accomplished almost everything he campaigned on four years ago. He's now considered the most progressive governor in the country. He raised taxes on millionaires, made community colleges free for those who can't afford them, raised the minimum wage and kick-started a wind energy sector that now leads the region. But polls show the reason he's leading the race is due to something he didn't plan on.

MATT HALE: At the end of the day, Murphy's handling of COVID is really going to be the determination for most people.

SOLOMON: Matt Hale is a professor of political science at Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J.

HALE: He's done a very workmanlike, very professional and very quiet job, but I think that's exactly what people want. So I think that people are going to reward that boring competence.

SOLOMON: It doesn't help that his Republican challenger does not support mask mandates for school kids or vaccine mandates, both of which poll strongly in New Jersey. I went to Chatham, a suburb that's evenly split between Democrats and Republicans, and the first person I stopped on the sidewalk brought this up.

MONICA SCHAEFER: The mandates in school, I think, are really important because it helps everybody.

SOLOMON: Monica Schaefer in her 50s and has kids in the local schools.

SCHAEFER: I'm a true believer in unions and for our teachers, and it protects our teachers, and I think it's important to keep them on staff, and it's important that they're protected.

SOLOMON: For the first time, New Jersey has early voting sites that are now open. A poll released this week by Monmouth University has the governor up by 11 points.

For NPR News, I'm Nancy Solomon.

(SOUNDBITE OF MATT JORGENSEN'S "SPACE, PLANE AND LINE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.