NORTH PLAINFIELD, N.J. — President Biden swept into Democratic strongholds of New Jersey on Monday with hopes to breathe life into his “Build Back Better” agenda and the reelection bid of Gov. Phil Murphy, who is clinging to a solid but dwindling lead in a contest that will test the party’s post-Trump momentum.
Mr. Biden touted universal pre-kindergarten in this town 30 miles west of New York City before joining Mr. Murphy to tout transit upgrades near Newark. The Democratic governor must turn out voters in this solidly blue area to maintain an edge over Republican contender Jack Ciattarelli. The incumbent’s advantage has shrunk from double digits to 6 percentage points while Washington Democrats dither over an infrastructure package and social spending plans.
“I think it shows that the party is throwing all of its big guns at this,” said Scott Lancey, a Republican who lives up the block from the East End Elementary School, which could extend its free pre-K class to 3-year-olds under Mr. Biden’s plan.
Mr. Biden will campaign Tuesday with Democrat Terry McAuliffe in the Virginia governor’s race against Republican Glenn Youngkin, though the president’s approval rating is underwater in the state.
The president won’t have to travel far. He will cross the Potomac River into Arlington, a liberal bastion, instead of trying to sway independents by pointing to an agenda that hasn’t made it into law.
“I think the fact that they are not traveling more than 4 miles into the commonwealth tells you everything you need to know about Biden’s lack of support, lack of enthusiasm across the commonwealth. The people they are talking to in Arlington are already with them,” Youngkin spokeswoman Macaulay Porter told The Washington Times.
That’s kind of the point. Democrats watching the only two governor’s races this year see a numbers game. Turnout will be critical in places that supported Mr. Biden by wide margins over President Trump last year.
Mr. McAuliffe, who served as Virginia governor from 2014 to 2018, previewed the Biden visit as a chance to “mobilize” the grassroots.
In New Jersey, Democrats have 1 million more registered voters than Republicans. Mr. Murphy needs them to show up after a rocky few months for the party, which promised big things.
“The GOP strongholds are the most rural — Warren and Sussex and the shore counties — while the Democrats own the most populous that are also big turnout machines,” said Ross Baker, a politics professor at Rutgers University.
Mr. Biden won New Jersey by over 15 points and Virginia by 10 points last year. As president this year, he is reeling nationally from the chaotic Afghanistan exit, supply chain issues and attempts to wrap a fractured party around spending plans to invest in physical infrastructure and social welfare.
He is still planning a transportation package and a roughly $2 trillion bill to expand the social safety net. The proposal has been watered down, though. Negotiators have eliminated or scaled back provisions that energized Democratic activists, including paid leave for workers, action on climate change and a larger child tax credit.
“I think the fact the race is even close in New Jersey is a result of President Biden’s declining political fortunes,” said Colin Reed, a Republican Party strategist who worked as a spokesman for Chris Christie when he was New Jersey’s governor. “The background music of the station of the nation is inescapable and can’t be discounted. So many of the issues the country is grappling with right now aren’t partisan issues. The grocery stores are bare, gas is pushing four bucks a gallon.”
New Jersey Democrats haven’t won a gubernatorial reelection campaign since 1977. Still, many view the race as Mr. Murphy’s to lose as Mr. Ciattarelli, a former state assemblyman, tries to catch up to the only incumbent governor on the ballot this year.
A Stockton University poll released at the end of September showed Mr. Murphy leading 50% to 41%. It was the first public poll to indicate the incumbent had only a single-digit lead.
An Emerson College/PIX 11 poll last week showed Mr. Murphy’s lead had narrowed to 6 points, 50% to 44%.
The Murphy campaign said it doesn’t comment on polls and that Mr. Biden was making an official White House visit, not a campaign stop. Still, the implications for Mr. Murphy were clear as the president pledged to deliver on New Jersey transit ambitions.
Mr. Biden said Mr. Murphy is already leading on the types of projects he is trying to get Congress to pass.
“Thanks for showing the way, pal. Thanks for showing the way,” Mr. Biden said at the NJ Transit Meadowlands Maintenance Complex in Kearny.
Mr. Murphy said Mr. Biden’s infrastructure plan, which passed the Senate but sits in the House, would advance a new Portal Bridge and other “Gateway Program” projects that provide commuter service across the Hudson River to Manhattan and beyond.
“President Biden is our nation’s 46th president. The Portal Bridge was opened during the term of our 27th. Let that one sink in for a second,” Mr. Murphy said. “Now, it is time for us to give our region the modern, safe and reliable infrastructure that a 21st-century economy demands. And that’s exactly what the entirety of the Gateway Program will do. In the process, we’ll be creating good, union construction jobs whose efforts will, in turn, support even more jobs up and down the entirety of the Northeast Corridor.”
Democrats have eight days to deliver a bill, or the party will head into Election Day on Nov. 2 empty-handed. Mr. Murphy told MSNBC that “sooner is better than later” for Democrats to enact the infrastructure bill.
Some voters don’t need convincing.
Matosha Williams-Rivera, holding an American flag and eagerly awaiting Mr. Biden’s arrival in North Plainfield, said Mr. Murphy is handling the COVID-19 crisis and public education well. She was excited to get a glimpse of Mr. Biden.
“He’s going to win. I don’t think he’s going to win, he’s going to win,” she said.
Mr. Lancey said he will most likely vote for Mr. Ciattarelli, though he thinks Mr. Murphy “is probably going to take it again.”
“We’re kind of a Democratic state,” he said.
David DeVico of North Plainfield said he thinks Mr. Ciattarelli could win given Mr. Biden’s declining approval ratings and general disgust at Democratic mandates related to COVID-19.
“One clown says ‘mandate,’ the other clown says ‘OK.’ Pretty soon, everyone is out of work,” he said. “This is still America, right? People have their freedom of choice.”
With COVID-19 fatigue and stutter steps in Washington, Democratic candidates are portraying their opponents as Trump acolytes despite pledges to move beyond the polarizing former president.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, repeatedly invoked Mr. Trump on his way to rebuffing a recall attempt. Mr. McAuliffe has compared Mr. Youngkin’s calls for tighter election security to Mr. Trump’s unsubstantiated cries of fraud in the election last year.
“They’re fixated on making their former opponents look like the former president and stuck on the issue of the Jan. 6 riot. And I think most rational people don’t like what happened [at the Capitol], but it’s not the issue that’s front and center when they wake up and live their lives,” said Mr. Reed, the former Christie aide. “It’s hard to get your people out to vote when you haven’t done what you’re going to do.”
Mr. Ciattarelli has tried to carve a middle path between conservatives loyal to the former president and the independents he will need to pull out a win. Unlike Republican hard-liners, Mr. Ciattarelli acknowledged Mr. Biden’s win last November and joined Democrats in chastising Mr. Trump for criticizing former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell one day after his death from complications of COVID-19.
Mr. Ciattarelli is pointing to sky-high property taxes in New Jersey and a notable comment Mr. Murphy made in 2019 at Rowan University.
“If you’re a one-issue voter and tax is your issue, either a family or business, and if that’s the only basis upon which you’re going to make a decision, we in New Jersey are probably not your state,” Mr. Murphy said at the time.
“Not your state? Who says that?” Mr. Ciattarrelli says in a campaign ad that runs frequently on the airwaves.
Mr. Murphy recently told radio host Steve Adubato that he inherited the “property tax mess” and would like to reel it in but he also wants to give people a “rich basket of stuff back: education, quality of life, health care. We have the No. 1-rated hospital system in America.”
In Virginia, where the governor’s race is deadlocked, the latest Monmouth University survey of voters showed Mr. Biden is underwater with 43% approving and 52% disapproving of his job performance. It marks a dip from August, when 46% approved and 49% disapproved.
Mr. Biden received a thumbs-up from 84% of Democrats, 35% of independents and 6% of Republicans.
Mr. McAuliffe provided additional fodder for his rivals by acknowledging in a recent conference call that Mr. Biden is unpopular in Virginia and criticizing the administration’s lack of legislative action.
Mr. Biden’s polling numbers started to go south after the chaotic withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. The gridlock on Capitol Hill, the ongoing struggles with the coronavirus and higher-than-normal inflation also have dented his image.
Still, Mr. Biden is stronger than Mr. Trump was at this point in his presidency. A Gallup tracking poll put Mr. Biden’s approval at 42% and Mr. Trump’s approval at 37% in October 2017.
Virginia Democrat Ralph Northam and Mr. Murphy won their respective gubernatorial races that year, and Democrats followed it up in the midterm elections by flipping control of the House.
The New Jersey Republican Party said things are different this time.
“I am shocked that Phil Murphy would bring Joe Biden to N.J.,” Chairman Bob Hugin said. “It reinforces all of the images that the Murphy campaign has fought to avoid: incompetence and radical policies destroying the American Dream.”
A group of people with “F—- Biden” flags let the president know he wasn’t welcome. They declined to comment on the record to The Washington Times but said they think former President Barack Obama, who campaigned for Mr. Murphy over the weekend, and Mr. Biden are making it harder for the incumbent to stay in office.
Others raised smartphones to take snaps of the president’s motorcade at the local school.
“I’m 56,” said Ms. Williams-Rivera, “and I’ve never, ever seen a president up close or any of this, coming to the town.”
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated New Jersey Democrats’ record of winning gubernatorial reelection campaigns. New Jersey Democrats have not won a gubernatorial reelection campaign since 1977.