(Bloomberg) — Republicans are basing a long-shot campaign for New Jersey governor on a strategy to taint Democratic incumbent Phil Murphy with the scandals of embattled New Yorker Andrew Cuomo.
Murphy has been blasted by Republicans for failing to join a bipartisan demand for the resignation of Cuomo, the third-term Democrat under investigation after sexual-harassment allegations. New Jersey’s governor also has faced criticism for his decision a year ago to follow his New York counterpart in ordering nursing homes to accept Covid-19-positive hospital patients.
New Jersey, one of only two U.S. states choosing a governor this year, has the country’s highest Covid-19 death rate among nursing-home residents, making Murphy a target.
But Murphy is quick to distinguish his response from Cuomo’s, pointing out steps he took to minimize the spread and encourage transparency. He also has a $3.1 million campaign fund and a likely opponent who is little known and has raised one-10th that amount. Murphy also has more than seven months to revive New Jersey’s economy before he faces voters.
“As states are starting to come out of the dark days and voters are becoming more optimistic, it’s an advantage for someone like Governor Murphy,” Cuomo’s pollster, Jefrey Pollock, said in an interview. “The notion of throwing stones across the Hudson River is not a winning strategy.”
Both governors acknowledge that the nursing-home deaths were tragic, but say they can’t be blamed for policy made in good faith during an unprecedented crisis. Murphy says his directive to isolate virus patients went further than New York’s, instructing facility owners to contact the state if they couldn’t comply.
“Does this mean there were operators who ignored the directive and may have screwed up?” Murphy, 63, said Monday in Trenton. “It’s quite possible there were.”
He declined to comment on Republicans’ linking him to Cuomo.
Early in the outbreak, New York was hardest hit, and New Jersey was No. 2., as international travelers carrying Covid-19 arrived at airports. Many lockdown decisions made by Murphy were done in concert with Cuomo, who became a national media personality with his briefings and jocular interviews with his brother, a CNN newscaster.
Cuomo, 63, had intended to seek a fourth term in 2022. Months ago he seemed a shoo-in, riding high on voter approval and national praise for his handling of the pandemic. More recently, he declined to say if he would run again.
Since late February, Cuomo has been accused of sexual harassment or unwelcome contact by several women, some of them former aides. The governor says he was unaware of their discomfort and that he was never physically inappropriate. Nonetheless, prominent Democrats, including both of New York’s U.S. senators, Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, say Cuomo should resign.
Murphy has called the allegations “deeply troubling, deeply concerning” and said he supports an investigation by two lawyers hired by Cuomo’s attorney general, Letitia James.
Republican candidate for governor Jack Ciattarelli, in a fundraising email, said Cuomo’s behavior was “disgusting,” and criticized Murphy for standing by “his best friend.” Ciattarelli, 59, is a medical-publishing company owner and former state lawmaker from Somerville who lost the 2017 GOP gubernatorial primary.
Murphy was uncharacteristically forceful when asked March 22 about attempts to link his handling of nursing homes with Cuomo’s, saying his directives were “crystal clear about separating different floors, different wings, different buildings, including for staff,” to keep the sick from the healthy.
“There’s no denying we were clobbered,” Murphy said. “There’s no denying the losses of life and the tragedy associated with it. There is also no denying the black-and-white nature of the directives.”
He also referred to legislation he signed to boost nursing-home staffing and pay.
Nationally, Covid-19 had killed 130,296 nursing-home residents as of March 7, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than 8,000 died in New Jersey, and about 15,000 in New York. New Jersey’s rate of 124.3 deaths per 1,000 is higher than any other state, data show.
Andrew Aronson, chief executive officer of the Health Care Association of New Jersey, a group representing long-term care providers, said virus-exposed residents returning from hospitals weren’t the only drivers of fatalities. Testing was limited, some infected staffers were asymptomatic and personal protective equipment was scarce, he said in an email.
“There is more than meets the eye,” Aronson said.
Murphy also pointed out that his administration was quicker to report data on resident deaths — the kind that Cuomo has been accused of covering up. In June, Murphy said, New Jersey disclosed thousands of deaths that lacked a lab-confirmed coronavirus link, but were probably caused by Covid-19.
In a March 17 fundraising email, the New Jersey Republican State Committee said that Murphy in his initial order was effectively “signing a death warrant.” Republicans have filed public-records requests to examine how closely the governors may have coordinated their nursing home policies.
Senator Joe Pennacchio, a Republican from Morris County, is calling for members of New Jersey’s Democratic-controlled legislature to do as their New York colleagues did on March 5 and strip the governor of pandemic emergency powers.
“New York’s admission of obstruction screams for an investigation of New Jersey,” Pennacchio said in a news release. “All along, New Jersey’s nursing home policies have been ‘follow the leader,’ following in the footsteps of New York.”
Meanwhile, New York and New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Michigan are subjects of a U.S. Justice Department review of nursing homes’ pandemic conditions. In January, James reported that Cuomo’s aides undercounted thousands of nursing-home deaths, Cuomo said they had paused the tally to assist with the federal probe, and his administration says it’s cooperating with an FBI inquiry.
Christopher Laxton, executive director of the Society for Post-Acute and Long-Term Care Medicine, said his organization advised several states, including New York and New Jersey, not to admit virus patients to nursing homes. Cuomo, he said, “basically ignored all of that help that was offered,” while the Murphy administration was more receptive. Still, Laxton was critical of how nursing homes have emerged as a campaign issue.
“The politicization of this pandemic across the board is just ridiculously unhelpful,” Laxton said in an interview. “Our concerns are first and foremost to keep our residents and staff safe — not getting into a political bash session.”
Over the past seven days, New Jersey averaged 319 coronavirus cases per 100,000 people, the highest among U.S. states, CDC data show. But it’s also administered 3.6 million vaccine doses, enough to cover 20.9% of its population, higher than neighboring New York, Pennsylvania and Delaware, according to the Bloomberg Vaccine Tracker.
The last poll on Murphy, conducted in October, gave him 62% voter approval and 54% favorability. His favorable impression was among the highest for a New Jersey governor, the Rutgers-Eagleton poll said.
“As people start going back to work and the malls and restaurants and schools open again, pandemic issues will become harder to bring up,” said Benjamin Dworkin, director of the Institute for Public Policy & Citizenship at Rowan University in Glassboro, New Jersey. “If you’re going to attack Phil Murphy, now is your chance to talk about Covid and try at least to bruise him up a bit, because you know you’re not going to be able to talk this way through November.”