Gov. Phil Murphy and former Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli will clash in the first of two gubernatorial debates at 7 p.m. this evening at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark.
The debate will be moderated by Sade Baderinwa of WABC-TV, Jim Gardner of WPVI-TV, Adriana Vargas-Sino of Univision, and NJ Advance Media reporter Amanda Hoover.
Twitter, WBGO-FM, 6-ABC Philadelphia, and the Rutgers Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers School of Public Affairs and Administration are also hosting the debate.
Three other candidates for governor – Green Party nominee Madelyn Hoffman, Socialist Workers Party nominee Joanne Kuniansky and Libertarian Party nominee Gregg Mele – will appear on the ballot in November, but they have been excluded from the debates by the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission.
Candidates who did not meet the state’s fundraising threshold were not invited to participate in debates.
Murphy is trying to become the first Democrat in 44 years to win reelection and to buck a trend going back to 1985 that has seen the party of the president lose the New Jersey governorship.
Ciattarelli faces headwinds of his own. Down by double digits in publicly available polls, he faces a Democratic registration advantage of 1 million more voters.
He’s also not a very well-known figure in the Garden State, despite having won the Republican nomination and competing for the GOP nod in 2017.
The debate season starts as the latest Monmouth University Poll shows “a small shift” in the contest. Still, Murphy is still leading Ciattarelli by double digits, 51%-38%. In August, Murphy polled at 52% while Ciattarelli polled at 36%.
The poll showed Ciattarelli with a slight lead in South Jersey in August. Now, he is “basically even” with Murphy in the region.
The Republican also remains largely unknown, according to Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth Poll. He said this is the time for Ciattarelli to start building momentum in order to get voters when they begin to pay more attention to the race in October.
“You start needing to make that movement now,” he said. “Our polling numbers suggest that Jack Ciattarelli just has not been able to make a dent in Murphy’s standing in a way that could potentially set him up for an upset.”
Murray adds that a steady stream of advertising from both campaigns have not made a difference in the race.
Ciattarelli has attacked the incumbent’s handling of rape allegations from a volunteer against a staffer when the two worked on Murphy’s first campaign. Both the rapist and his victim were hired to six-figure jobs in state government after Murphy was elected.
Murphy then stuck taxpayers with the bill for nearly one million dollars to settle a lawsuit filed by the rape victim, who recently criticized the Republican for using her story in a campaign ad.1