A new ad released by the Murphy campaign holds Ciattarelli’s claim this summer that the virus poses no risk to children alongside similar comments made by then-President Donald Trump, who lost New Jersey by more than 15 points last year. The 30-second spot echoes a series of advertisements released by California Democrats in the final weeks of the recall in both style and substance: black and red text, urgent phrasing and the looming presence of an unpopular former president.
On the debate stage last week, Murphy compared Ciattarelli’s positions granting leeway to parents and individuals when it comes to masks and vaccines as “akin to supporting drunk driving — it impacts both the person driving drunk and all the rest of us.”
The Murphy team’s renewed focus on Ciattarelli’s stances around Covid-19 comes even after a recent Monmouth University poll found a majority of voters assign some blame to the governor for failures that caused nursing home deaths to spiral in the early days of the pandemic. Even with New Jersey’s leftward slant, Republican leaders had hoped a reassessment of Murphy’s pandemic response would steer voters into the GOP column in November.
But Covid-19’s late summer resurgence scrambled those plans, forcing Ciattarelli — a former state lawmaker — to defend positions against public health policies that are largely reflective of the CDC’s current guidance.
Ciattarelli has “been condemned by public health experts, widely, for those types of positions. And we thought it was important to amplify that and that voters know the stakes,” Murphy campaign spokesperson Jerrel Harvey said in an interview. “We believe that this is a clear and present danger to our state.”
The governor’s allies are also increasingly raising Ciattarelli’s appearance at an August school board meeting in coastal Toms River, where he encouraged parents to push the board to reject mask requirements at schools.
In the month since schools in Toms River reopened with a mask-optional policy, taking advantage of a loophole Murphy’s order made for districts to shed face covering requirements during “extreme heat,” more than 300 cases among students and staff have been reported and hundreds more are in quarantine.
The district has defended its policy — it only applied to buildings and classrooms that lacked air conditioning and was only in effect during a period when temperatures in town were at or above 75 degrees — arguing many students were infected before the start of the school year.
Given the outbreaks at schools, Ciattarelli, a former member of General Assembly, backtracked on some of the comments regarding children’s risk of contracting Covid-19, telling the debate audience that “if I had the chance to say it again, I would say it differently and more perfect.”
Even so, Ciattarelli’s opposition to mask mandates, coupled with his earlier courting of anti-vaccine advocates, complicates some of his more nuanced critiques of Murphy’s policies.
There are still unresolved questions about how Murphy’s policies contributed to more than 8,500 Covid-19 deaths across long-term care facilities and state-run veterans homes — the latter of which are the subject of state and federal investigations.
As Ciattarelli pointed out during the debate, Murphy’s vaccine-or-test order for school employees won’t take effect until Oct. 18 — weeks after the start of the school year. And while the governor has criticized Ciattarelli’s positions as offering “wiggle room” to individuals who have been unwilling to get vaccinated, the Republican counters that Murphy providing unvaccinated workers the option to regularly test serves the same function.
“The great fear here in New Jersey, especially since Governor Murphy said he wants to make New Jersey ‘the California of the East Coast,’ is that a Phil Murphy not worried about reelection will only get more aggressive in handing down Trenton mandates that encroach on personal freedom and choice and, ultimately, push us towards another devastating economic lockdown,” Ciattarelli spokesperson Stami Williams said in an email. “As Governor, Jack will bring the legislature back into the decision-making process and chart a path that saves lives and livelihoods and protects our children.”
For now, public polling suggests a majority of New Jerseyans favor Murphy’s top-down decision making when it comes to the pandemic.
The same Monmouth University poll in which New Jersey voters tagged Murphy on business closures and nursing home deaths found that the governor still has a broad base of support when it comes to Covid-19 prevention strategies, which include requiring students and teachers to mask up. More than half of those surveyed say the state’s pandemic strategy has been appropriate — another 17 percent say it hasn’t gone far enough.
That’s in keeping with what’s been occurring at the national level. An Axios/Ipsos poll released in late August found that a majority of Americans favored masks in schools and vaccine requirements in the workplace. A Monmouth poll released last month showed national support for vaccine mandates among health care workers, teachers and federal employees and contractors.
One of Newsom’s top advisers told POLITICO in September that the main takeaway from California’s recall results was “don’t be timid on Covid. That was the turning point in this campaign, when Newsom came out and took bold action on vaccine mandates.”
Murphy’s allies are hoping the same holds true in New Jersey.
“The majority of people trust the science,” New Jersey state Sen. Joseph Vitale (D-Middlesex) said in an interview. “The outcome of the Newsom race illustrated that. Period. The same thing applies here. People don’t think any differently about the coronavirus in New Jersey as they do in California.”
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