In a stunner, it’s too close to call

Murphy and Ciattarelli in dead heat with votes still out; Sweeney, Gopal in tight battles

About that relatively easy march forward to a second term …

Gov. Phil Murphy, expected to win easily, is in a tough fight for reelection in a race that still is too close to call as of Wednesday morning — and may not be called until later in the week.

Murphy, speaking just after midnight on Wednesday morning — and certainly later than he thought he would — only would tell supporters that he hoped that he would triumph once all the votes were counted.

“We’re all sorry that tonight cannot yet be the celebration we wanted it to be,” he said at what was supposed to be a victory party in Asbury Park. “But, as I said, when every vote is counted, and every vote will be counted, we hope to have a celebration.”

When all those votes will be counted isn’t clear. What is clear is that Murphy, his fellow Democrats and the progressive agenda do not have the support they thought they did.

While Republican challenger Jack Ciattarelli took a slim lead over the incumbent Murphy into morning (49.65%-49.60%, with 88% of votes counted), neither candidate declared victory nor conceded. Both were waiting for all votes — including mail-in votes — to be counted. Murphy is expected to have a decided advantage in votes by mail.

The governor’s race was not the only surprise.

In District 3, state Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-West Deptford) is in a much tighter than expected race against Republican challenger Edward Durr. But incumbent Democratic Assemblymen Adam Taliaferro (D-Salem) and John Burzichelli (D-West Deptford) have fallen to Republican challengers Beth Sawyer and Bethanne McCarthy Patrick.

District 11 is proving to be as big a stunner.

State Sen. Vin Gopal (D-Ocean Twp.) is trailing Republican challenger Lori Annetta by approximately 500 votes with more than 96% of the votes in. And the two Republican candidates running for the Assembly, Marilyn Piperno and Kimberly Eulner, appear to have defeated Democratic incumbents Joann Downey and Eric Houghtaling (both D-Ocean Twp.).

Ciattarelli expressed optimism when he met with supporters.

“I wanted to come out here tonight because we won,” he said. “But I’m here to tell you that we’re winning.”

Murphy is attempting to be the first Democratic governor to win reelection since Brendan Byrne in 1977. He was ahead by 8%-11% in most of the final polls.

Other key members of the Legislature had easier nights. Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Woodbridge) and Assemblywoman Eliana Pinto Marin (D-Newark) both rolled. As did state Sens. Paul Sarlo (D-Wood-Ridge), Steve Oroho (R-Sparta) and Troy Singleton (D-Moorestown).

Republican Jon Bramnick appeared to have won the District 11 Senate seat formally held by Tom Kean Jr.

And former Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian won a spot in the Assembly in District 2.