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GOP's Ciattarelli votes early in N.J., sees opening as Washington Democrats scuffle

HILLSBOROUGH, N.J. — GOP challenger Jack Ciattarelli said Friday he is confident he can catch and defeat frontrunner Gov. Phil Murphy, pointing to President Biden‘s fumbles in Washington and underwater ratings with independent voters.

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Mr. Ciattarelli, who must close a polling deficit that ranges from six to 11 points, said Mr. Biden‘s numbers are “off significantly in New Jersey” as he voted in his hometown and sprinted across the state for rallies and diner visits before Election Day on Tuesday. Mr. Murphy is the only governor running for reelection this year.

Mr. Biden is “underwater with that one group that really dictates the outcomes of statewide elections, unaffiliated independent voters,” Mr. Ciattarelli said after he emerged from the polling booth. “He‘s off severely with them, and I think it’s because people feel like right now the administration is failing, whether it is on the border, the economy with inflation, supply chain, the withdrawal from Afghanistan. I think that’s going to weigh in heavily, the fact that Biden is so severely underwater, not being able to get those bills through the Congress.”

Mr. Ciattarelli hugged voters, thanked poll workers and was able to vote early on an in-person machine, a new offering in the state. He told police officers stationed at the polling site that he‘s got their back, and encountered a classic “Batmobile” car that shot flames out the back.

“Only in New Jersey,” he told reporters with his wife, Melinda, alongside him. “That’s how you fight crime.”

Mr. Ciattarelli remains a long shot in his contest with Mr. Murphy, who is touting his progressive record in appearances with Mr. Biden, former President Barack Obama and socialist Sen. Bernard Sanders of Vermont in the homestretch.

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New Jersey Democrats have not been able to win a second gubernatorial term since 1977, however, and Mr. Murphy said he‘s running like he‘s “10 points behind.”

The incumbent is highlighting efforts to lift the minimum wage in the state to $15 per hour by 2024, to boost a robustly funded public-school system and to impose a “millionaire’s tax” to fund health care, education and infrastructure initiatives.

Mr. Ciattarelli said he‘s glad New Jersey has a leading education program, but Massachusetts is right behind them and spends 20% less, he told reporters. He said he wants to know what the current administration is doing wrong.

The Republican also said heavy taxes on top earners aren’t competitive with neighboring Pennsylvania, prompting an outward migration of residents.

“We focused on the one issue that people say time and time again is the number one issue in New Jersey — taxes, including property taxes,” he said at the Hillsborough Municipal Building. “This is a governor who said if taxes are your issue, we’re probably not your state. [Mr. Murphy] put his finger right in the eye of New Jerseyans when he knows that’s the number one issue.”

Mr. Ciattarelli also criticized Mr. Murphy for allowing COVID-19 patients to return to nursing homes in the early days of the pandemic, and said he supports vaccination but would never mandate it.

A recent undercover video quoted a Murphy consultant suggesting the governor was waiting until after the election to mandate the shots in various sectors, though the governor said he has no plans at this time to push new mandates.

Some voters say Mr. Murphy did the best he could with the pandemic and provided a human touch to the response by highlighting the lives of people who died from the disease.

The New Jersey contest is one of two governor’s races in the U.S. this year.

Democrat Terry McAuliffe is trying to get his old job back as Virginia governor against Republican Glenn Youngkin. That race is deadlocked.

Mr. Biden is trying to lift both candidates despite lagging approval ratings and desperate attempts to pass his domestic agenda in Washington, as leaders scramble to lock down votes from warring moderates and liberals for an infrastructure plan and parallel social-spending bill.

Mr. Biden visited a New Jersey school and a transit hub outside Newark on Monday to promote a “Build Back Better” agenda that would expand universal pre-kindergarten and make major investments in physical infrastructure.

Though an official visit, Mr. Biden‘s presence offered the governor the chance to highlight transit initiatives alongside national Democrats that will help Hudson River commuters.

Mr. Murphy praised a White House framework for passing the bills Thursday as “nothing short of transformative,” highlighting initiatives such as universal pre-kindergarten, bigger subsidies for health insurance and investments in the “green economy.”

But there was a catch. Democrats from high-tax states in the Northeast and West were pushing for last-minute changes to the cap on the so-called “SALT” deduction.

The GOP tax overhaul in 2017 capped the amount of state and local taxes that relatively wealthy people in high-tax states could deduct on their federal returns, angering New Jersey residents and lawmakers.

“I look forward to working with our congressional delegation to ensure the final bill also includes SALT deduction cap relief,” Mr. Murphy said. “The SALT deduction cap was the largest tax hike on middle-class families in our state’s history, and I will not stop fighting until New Jersey gets the relief we deserve.”

Mr. Ciattarelli said the governor and his allies are coming up short.

“All the congressional Democrats that were on the ballot last year and Phil Murphy said, ‘Hey New Jersey, if you elect Joe Biden we’ll get the SALT deduction back. You see how that’s going,” he said. “We want that SALT deduction back. That’s one thing I disagreed vehemently on with Donald Trump. We want the SALT deduction back, we’re a donor state. We deserve to have the SALT deduction back.”

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