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The latest on the race for governor in New Jersey

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

It was a nail-biter, but the Democratic governor in New Jersey has won his reelection. Gov. Phil Murphy had led his Republican challenger by double digits in the polls, but rather than the decisive win he may have hoped for, he squeaked by his Republican challenger, Jack Ciattarelli, by the tiniest of margins. We're joined now by Nancy Solomon, who covers New Jersey politics for member station WNYC.

Hey there, Nancy.

NANCY SOLOMON, BYLINE: Hi.

CORNISH: So we're saying here that the Democratic governor has won his reelection. What are they saying on the ground?

SOLOMON: Well, The Associated Press called the race with Murphy leading by 19,000 votes. That's a tiny margin in a state with 6 1/2 million registered voters. But there doesn't appear to be any path to victory for Ciattarelli. All the counties that lean Republican are 100% in, and the counties that still have ballots to count are heavily Democratic. There are still an unknown number of mail-in ballots, but those tend to break for Democrats. So the expectation is Murphy's lead will grow over the next few days. The Ciattarelli campaign is angry about the calling of the race and doesn't appear ready to concede, however.

CORNISH: New Jersey has always thought to have been a blue state. Both houses of the state Legislature are controlled by Democrats. Much of the congressional delegation is also Democratic. What happened that made this race so tight?

SOLOMON: I don't think Murphy had the right message for the moment. He tried over and over again, like we saw in the race in Virginia, to paint Jack Ciattarelli as a Trump extremist. And that was done at the cost of not talking about what he was doing for moderate, middle-class suburbanites. He needed to tell them more clearly what he had done on taxes or how he improved school funding, and he didn't explain some of the culture-war issues that Ciattarelli raised. Murphy would say Ciattarelli was being divisive. But he needed to explain why, for instance, it's the right thing to do, say, to include gay and lesbian identity in the school curriculum. Here's a cut of tape of Ciattarelli talking about it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JACK CIATTARELLI: I've heard parents, particularly mothers, say that a young child came home questioning their sexuality, questioning their gender. If that's the consequence of what's being taught, that should tell us there's something terribly wrong with this curriculum.

SOLOMON: Murphy's campaign thought that would sink him, but it turned out that that really tapped into a lot of concern going on in the exurbs, that outer ring of suburban New Jersey.

CORNISH: Some have called Murphy, really, one of the most progressive governors in the country. What does this narrow win mean for his second term?

SOLOMON: He's not going to have such a large Democratic majority in the state Legislature. A bunch of Democrats lost their seats. Even the very powerful Senate president may go down. Some progressives today are making the argument that the fall of some centrist, powerful Democrats in the Legislature will actually free up Murphy to be more progressive, not less. And Murphy will also be freed up because he'll be term-limited out so he doesn't have to worry about his next reelection.

CORNISH: Once it's official, does this mean Murphy has made a little bit of history?

SOLOMON: Yes, it does. He becomes the first Democratic governor to win reelection since 1977, which is just extraordinary - strange for a blue state. But I think what Ciattarelli, you know, showed us is there are still a lot of moderate voters in New Jersey who can tip a statewide race one way or the other.

CORNISH: Nancy Solomon from member station WNYC covers New Jersey politics.

Thanks for your excellent reporting on this.

SOLOMON: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.