The Murphy Vacation Right Now Feels like a Rookie Political Mistake

Phil Murphy and Jack Ciattarelli

While the nation looks toward the midterm elections, and is already handicapping

Fisher
Dr. Fischer

Presidential races well into the future, 2021 will feature a mere two gubernatorial elections (not counting the exceptional circumstances related to the recall election in California). In Virginia, Democratic Party stalwart and former Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe is seeking a second term (Virginia Constitution prohibits serving consecutive terms) against former businessperson, Glenn Youngkin – who in addition to his private sector success, is best known for failing to recognize that President Biden won the 2020 election.  The other governor’s race is in New Jersey, where current governor (and former Ambassador to Germany) Phil Murphy will face off against former member of the New Jersey Assembly Jack Ciattarelli. As of this moment, most indicators suggest that both McAuliffe and Murphy are ahead. This stands to reason as Virginia has been trending Democratic in statewide elections, and in New Jersey, the wake of an unpopular Republican governor and high-COVID related approval numbers bodes well for a reelection campaign. Pivoting away from Virginia, we have to ask why would Phil Murphy take a family vacation in Italy?

Murphy owns a home in Italy, he and his family frequent the location as often as they can and frankly who wouldn’t given the resources and opportunity? Nevertheless, his state’s largest industry has been stung with a lack of Canadian tourism, long known to be a staple for the success of the Jersey Shore. The delta variant has driven the state’s COVID-19 numbers in the wrong trajectory, requiring Murphy to reintroduce mandatory masking in schools. Unfortunately, additional unpopular COVID protocols are being regionally and nationally discussed. Right or wrong, Murphy will need to speak to these recommendations. He will do so to an increasingly beleaguered constituency, and will have a national spotlight on him while he does. While a family vacation is alluring and certainly something worth doing, it’s hard to fathom why he would give Ciattarelli the talking point. It’s unlikely that this alone would be a tipping point issue for the campaign, but why offer it up in the first place?

Murphy did well in terms of public approval during the pandemic and enters this race will that advantage, the advantage of incumbency, and deep personal pockets, but, he is not considered a charismatic individual (his name recognition prior to the pandemic was almost so bad it was hard to believe he was governor of the nation’s most densely populated state). Neither that element nor the pandemic’s unpredictability is enviable when looking toward a reelection effort. It might be hard to suggest that Murphy is incompetent, that the state was better off under his predecessor, or for Ciattarelli to overcome his record of support for Donald Trump, but this offers much needed opportunity for him to gain traction. Furthermore, it’s hard to gather why Murphy would offer up anything here that might offset Ciattarelli’s early stumbles out of the gate. Ciattarelli can now look to change the media cycle from having to defend his record, or from fruitlessly trying to bloody Murphy’s relatively popular record, by simply painting him as an out-of-touch uber-rich interloper, who not only failed to bring attention to the multitude of vacation locations in his home state, but literally left the country for his Italian-villa during an horrific surge in COVID-19 cases. Temporally, NJ residents are glued to public health data as the school year re-opens, and Murphy having ceded emergency powers needs to rely on local leaders to make difficult decisions. This is all the more germane to families with children too young to receive vaccinations, this anxiety will fuel interest in the governor’s race and in Murphy’s decision-making. Thus, we have to ask is this really the best time to be leaving the state whatsoever, let alone leaving for (what certainly sounds to be) a luxurious vacation ?

Make no mistake, were this election held today Murphy would win. Murphy has demonstrated to be a compassionate, thoughtful, decisive, and competent as the leader of the Garden State. His choice to dedicate time to his family is commendable and like many New Jerseyans his choice to visit some other location is perfectly fine and ethical. However, the optics of it, in the face of him urging caution and prudence regarding COVID, in the face of his state’s bruised tourism industry, in the face of a dramatic resurge in COVID cases, in the face of the anxiety of NJ families unsure if their children will be safe come September, all affords his unknown, and frankly somewhat bizarrely introduced opponent political opportunities to exploit.  Murphy gave Ciattarelli a gift here. He gave him an issue he didn’t have before, and one Murphy likely won’t want to defend. Ciattarelli will now paint Murphy as someone who abandoned his state in a tough time a la Ted Cruz.

People arguably vote for executive offices differently than they do for legislative offices. Voters make choses based on character as much as party affiliation. In NJ in particular, the governor is one of the most powerful in the nation, and voters in NJ are well aware of the scope and magnitude of the office. While the state is a deep blue in terms of current elected officials at virtually every level, the last three governors to win reelection have all been Republicans. With all of this in mind, and what seems to be a better set of metrics than what he had going into the first election, it simply seems bizarre that Murphy would make this gift to his opponent, fail to take the political opportunity to bring attention to his state’s hospitality industry and illustrate the depth of his sincerity and seriousness regarding public health.  If all things stay relatively equal, Ciattarelli will handily lose this race. Murphy is heavily favored, but in politics things can change quickly and dramatically, especially during the pandemic. Murphy is a seasoned politician, both in the Democratic Party and having occupied significant and powerful positions. Hence the shock factor of this decision, he’s not a rookie, but this feels like a rookie mistake – unless of course, he failed to learn the lesson of pride coming before the fall.

Dr. Sean Fischer is an adjunct instructor of U.S. History and Government at Rowan University.

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  • Morrison2525

    “Ciattarelli will now paint Murphy as someone who abandoned his state in a tough time…”

    I suppose that he could, but what would the vaccinated Republican argue that Murphy should be doing in Trenton during that time? Undoing executive orders and communicating less with the public?

    Ciattarelli appears without a mask at campaign events and has been quoted as saying “Leave it up to the individual”.

    Ciattarelli promises members of an anti-vaccine PAC that, if elected, he would expand exemptions to requirements that children get vaccinated in order to attend public schools.

    The issue tab on Ciattarelli’s campaign website (Jack’s Plan) has but a single bulleted point that in any way relates to COVID: “In support of medical freedom and vaccine choice, oppose mandatory vaccinations and so-called vaccine passports”.

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