In fact, the first jab came just minutes into the whole affair Tuesday night at Rowan University, when Ciattarelli congratulated Murphy on “your Red Sox” beating “my Yankees” in the playoffs — a not-so-thinly veiled swipe at the governor’s Massachusetts pedigree.
It was the first of many punches the two candidates threw at each other in their last chance to debate each other on live television with three weeks before Election Day on Nov. 2.
So who won this round?
“Despite some spirited jabs, neither side landed the knockout punch needed to move the needle,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute.
And that could be good news for Murphy, who continues to lead Ciattarelli in public-opinion polls, though the margin has thinned.
“At this point, it comes down to base enthusiasm, which is as much a product of the national political environment as having anything to do with this specific New Jersey race right now,” Murray said.
Still, Ashley Koning, director of the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling and an assistant research professor at Rutgers University, noted that Ciattarelli, a former member of the state Assembly, “leaned hard toward the center in this debate” after taking some rightward stances in previous months.
That, Koning said, included Ciattarelli “channeling his own history as a moderate Republican,” expressing personal support for COVID-19 vaccination, saying he’d back enshrining Roe v. Wade into state law, and defining “white privilege” after declining to do so in a recent radio interview.
Will that move the needle for Ciattarelli in the blue-leaning Garden State?
“After being under the shadow of (former President Donald) Trump for much of the campaign, it remains to be seen in these final weeks if Ciattarelli’s turn back to the ideological middle is too little, too late for the voters he needs to put him over the finish line,” Koning said.
Here’s a look at Murphy and Ciattarelli’s biggest blows Tuesday and the largest takeaways from the hour-long debate:
Ciattarelli has often slammed Murphy as “a king” who imposed coronavirus restrictions that were too heavy-handed.
On Tuesday, he didn’t paint him as royalty — just a hypocrite. Ciattarelli pointed to recent reports that Murphy and other attendees did not wear masks at an indoor ball hosted by Garden State Equality in Asbury Park this past weekend.
Attendees were required to present proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test to get in. But Monmouth County currently has “high” rates of coronavirus transmission and masking is recommended in such a setting, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And while Murphy has lifted statewide mask mandates, he has urged people to wear masks in settings of high risk.
“I do think our leadership needs to be consistent in times such as these,” Ciattarelli said.
Murphy suggested he did not wear a mask because he was on stage speaking.
“Are you wearing a mask right now? We’re on stage,” Murphy said to Ciattarelli.
Ciattarelli countered: “He was at a large indoor gathering. Nobody had a mask on.”
As for his own plans to battle the pandemic, Ciattarelli stressed he personally encourages people to get vaccinated, but he maintained he is against vaccine and mask mandates.
“I believe that my role as governor when elected is to provide all the information people need to make an informed decision. And then the choice is theirs,” he said.
Murphy suggested Ciattarelli’s views are dangerous.
“The tragedy today is there is a playbook,” the governor said. “We know vaccines work. We know masking works. For folks to ignore that (and) disregard that playbook is putting lives needlessly at risk.”
Abortion has become a prominent issue in recent weeks after the U.S. Supreme Court all but made it illegal in Texas when the justices declined to hear a case on the matter.
Around the same time, New Jersey lawmakers introduced the Reproductive Freedom Act to enshrine a woman’s right to abortion into state law.
Murphy says lawmakers need to send that bill to his desk, worrying that Roe v. Wade — which gives women a right to abortion in the U.S. — will be overturned.
“This has gone from something that I think folks thought was abstract and theoretical to here and present danger,” the governor said.
Murphy’s stance on abortion has never been in question. But Ciattarelli’s remarks were a bit surprising.
Ciattarelli says he opposes the New Jersey bill because it goes too far, and he supports a ban on abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy. He also said he doubted the U.S. Supreme Court will overturn Roe vs. Wade.
But the former legislator stressed he believes in a woman’s right to choose before 20 weeks and said he would support writing a state law to enshrine the protections of Roe vs. Wade in New Jersey if it is overturned.
“If that’s what we need to do here in New Jersey to protect a woman’s right to choose, we will do that,” Ciattarelli said.
In the state with the highest property taxes in the nation, it’s no surprise taxes were once again a heated topic Tuesday.
Ciattarelli hasn’t laid out a specific plan to cut taxes. Instead, he has said he would rework the state’s school funding formula to lower property taxes, with scant additional details.
During the debate, Ciattarelli defended his school funding plans against criticism that it would cut court-mandated funding to poorer districts, saying the owner of a million-dollar home in Jersey City is paying less in property taxes than someone who owns a $400,000 home in Toms River.
“That’s not fair,” Ciattarelli said. “We need a flatter, more equitable distribution of aid.”
But Murphy insisted that would hurt poorer students, especially in communities of color.
“If you’re in a Black or brown community or you’re a Black or brown kid out there, you’re gonna get the rug pulled out from under you,” the governor said. “This is an us vs. them move.”
Trump is largely unpopular in Democratic-heavy New Jersey but is still very much beloved by most in the Republican Party. That can complicate things for a GOP candidate seeking statewide office where it’s necessary to energize a base but also to pick off middle-of-the-road voters, or, if they’re lucky, a healthy amount of Democrats in order to win a campaign.
Thus, it’s not surprising Ciattarelli has had an evolving view on Trump. In 2015, he called Trump a “charlatan” who was “out of step with the Party of Lincoln” and said he was “not fit to be president of the United States.”
So where does he stand now on the ex-president? Ciattarelli had a joke for that Tuesday.
“In 27 years of marriage, I want you to know Melinda’s called me worse than a charlatan a few times,” he said, referencing his wife.
Ciattarelli then praised Trump for how he handled the economy, border security, being “tough” on China, and moving the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, which broke decades of American policy. He also said he disagreed with Trump on offshore drilling, funding for the Gateway Tunnel project, and ending state and local property taxes deductions above $10,000 (all issues with a New Jersey connection).
But Ciattarelli didn’t say whether he would support Trump if he ran another White House bid in 2024. And he wouldn’t say if he’d welcome the former president if Trump offered to stump for him.
“I go out there and campaign on my own,” Ciattarelli said. “I’ll win my own election.”
Murphy has made tying Ciattarelli to Trump a central part of his campaign, saying electing his opponent would send the state “backwards.”
Ciattarelli countered Tuesday by saying Murphy is prone to blaming Trump or former Gov. Chris Christie — both Republicans. And he made a vow.
“When I take office in January, I will not blame the Murphy administration for anything,” Ciattarelli said. “We’ll get the job done.”
The audience Tuesday was just about as unruly and raucous as the one that gathered for the first gubernatorial debate on Sept. 28.
There were chants of “four more years” in support of Murphy. And there was sustained jeering from the pro-Ciattarelli group as the governor said during his closing statement that New Jersey “cannot afford an extreme leader” and shouldn’t stand with “confederate flags and white supremacists and a pack of lies.”
“A debate has broken out at a hockey game,” Murphy said at one point.
Both candidates had to ask the moderators to repeat their questions numerous times simply because the audience drowned them out. And not even the moderators were safe.
“The reason you can’t hear me is because your supporters are applauding,” NJ PBS’ David Cruz said to Ciattarelli at one point.
That was was promptly followed by boos and heckles aimed at Cruz.
You could say both debates mirrored the heated political divide in the U.S. — and how pointed and contentious this race has been at times.
“The audience was rowdy,” Ciattarelli told reporters after Tuesday’s affair ended. “We applaud their enthusiasm, but it made it more challenging.”
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