TRENTON, N.J. (CBSNewYork) — After an incredibly close contest, the Associated Press and CBS News on Wednesday projected Phil Murphy as the winner of the New Jersey governor’s race.

Incumbent Murphy was expected by many to cruise to re-election, but Republican Jack Ciattarelli proved to be an extremely formidable opponent. The former state assemblyman rode a wave of momentum into Election Day, and despite trailing in the polls throughout the campaign said on multiple occasions he expected the Garden State to vote Republican.

Murphy assumed a big lead when the returns first started coming in Tuesday, but as the night wore on Ciattarelli chipped away and eventually took the lead before Murphy rallied and put the race into a virtual tie.

At the time Murphy was projected winner, he was ahead of Ciattarelli 50-49 with 98% of precincts reporting. It’s a difference of about 29,000 votes.

READ MORE: New Jersey Election Results 2021

Murphy gave a victory speech Wednesday night, less than 24 hours after he said let’s wait for every vote to be counted. He promised to keep moving New Jersey forward, whether you voted for him or not.

As CBS2’s Jessica Layton reports, in the echoes of chants of “four more years” and beneath a backdrop of the slogan “Stronger, fairer, forward,” Murphy declared he’s been re-elected in a race that was too close to call for most of the day.

“Thank you New Jersey. Thank you for putting your trust in our team for another four years … If you want to know what the future looks like, folks, come to New Jersey. If you want to understand where America is heading, look to New Jersey. And if you want to be governor of all of New Jersey, you must listen to all of New Jersey. And New Jersey, I hear you,” Murphy said.

Murphy becomes the first Democrat to win re-election in New Jersey since 1977.

WATCH: Gov. Phil Murphy Gives Victory Speech After Being Projected Winner Of NJ Governor’s Race — 

Murphy supporters know the Democrat’s lead was and is razor thin and there are absentee ballots and 2% of precincts left to be counted.

The Ciattarelli campaign tweeted Wednesday night, “With the candidates separated by a fraction of a percent out of 2.4 million ballots cast, it’s irresponsible of the media to make this call when the New Jersey Secretary of State doesn’t even know how many ballots are left to be counted.”

“The places where those ballots are left are in places that have leaned so heavily Democratic, even in this particular race … so the trend is not going to be one that’s overwhelmingly in favor of Jack Ciattarelli,” political expert Dr. Will de Veyga, of William Paterson University, explained. “The second piece to keep in mind is what’s considered the blue shift, right, which is the secondary wave that comes after the polls have closed — the absentee ballots, the vote by mail — and that always tends to also lean Democratic. So once you compound everything, you expect the numbers to continue to increase.”

De Veyga also reminds us New Jersey does not have an automatic recount law, but candidates can request for one by filing suit within 17 days of Election Day.

“You can’t just say I want a recount because it was too close and maybe someone made an error. You have to have a recount on certain grounds, right? And there will be grounds. Again, if I was in the Ciattarelli group, I would say something to the effect of, you saw how the ACLU and League of Women Voters presented that lawsuit because there were groups that couldn’t vote and there was, like, Piscataway because there were issues with the machines,” de Veyga said.

Some political experts blamed a lack of enthusiasm for the tight race.

“I think that the progressive agenda that the governor has been pushing and has outlined has not necessarily energized a lot of the voters to come out and say, you know, we want four more years, regardless of how many victories he has had and how many good things he might have done for the state,” de Veyga said.

WATCH: Political Expert Dr. Will De Veyga Discusses Results Of New Jersey Governor’s Race — 

He added the COVID policies he has had for the state may have galvanized anti-mask, anti-vaxxer and anti-progressive voters.

“Back to the notion of getting excited about voting — when you don’t necessarily have a reason to come out and vote, and you are this off-cycle, quote unquote, even midterm elections, you think you yourself, ‘Eh, the governor’s up by eight, by ten points, all the polls are saying that,’ and if you have something else or something better to do, sometimes you say to yourself, ‘Well, you know what, he’s got it in the bag, I’m not going to go and vote’ … It doesn’t matter, what does my vote matter? And this is what we’re seeing, that every vote matters. Because look, people who actually had an axe to grind had a reason to get out and vote, showed it and made it close. It shouldn’t be that close,” de Veyga said.

READ MORE: Tight Race For New Jersey Governor Catches Some Off-Guard

Looking ahead, the tight race makes it clear that Murphy will be governing a divided state.

“I think the next four years are gonna be a great indicator on the legacy for Governor Murphy. Does he spend the next couple of years trying to pursue a job on the federal level? Whether, again, it’s setting himself up for a presidency bid, whether he’s trying to amp up his portfolio. Does he spend the next four years setting himself up for a legacy? Again, pushing the continuation of the progressive agenda that he’s had for the better, fairer New Jersey that he describes,” de Veyga said. “Or does he make sure that he starts to mend some of these bridges so that in 2025 when the next governor election comes, a Democrat has a shot? Because as things stand right now, it might be, alright, we’ve had quote, unquote enough, it’s time to kind of change, you know, the paradigm a little bit.”

Click here to check complete election results.

De Veyga said he does expect the governor’s victory to be upheld, although don’t expect a concession speech from Ciattarelli just yet.

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, meanwhile, tweeted her congratulations, saying, “Looking forward to our continued partnership on the biggest issues facing our state — and continuing to remind you which side of the George Washington Bridge is better.”

CBS2’s Jessica Layton contributed to this report. This story first appeared on November 3, 2021.

CBSNewYork Team