Republicans in New Jersey will choose Tuesday between an establishment-backed candidate for governor who would prefer to avoid the topic of former President Donald Trump and contenders who have forcefully embraced Trump’s lies about the 2020 election.
Four candidates are competing in a primary to take on Gov. Phil Murphy, who is unopposed in the Democratic primary in his bid for a second term. Murphy is the favorite in this year’s race, well-positioned to break a New Jersey streak that began in 1989 of electing a governor from the party opposite of the sitting president, a year after Joe Biden won the state by 16 percentage points.
But the Republican contest will offer a window into how the party’s primary voters are weighing loyalty to Trump against questions of experience and electability — potentially an instructive preview of the 2022 midterm elections.
Though public polling is limited, former state Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli is the favorite in Tuesday’s GOP contest. He is by far the best-funded candidate in the Republican race, raising $7 million while none of his rivals have reached the $1 million mark. With endorsements from all 21 county Republican organizations in the state, he’ll also benefit from prime placement on the ballot.
However, Ciattarelli also has a complicated history with Trump. In 2015, he was among the most vocal Trump critics in the New Jersey GOP, releasing a statement in which he called the then-presidential candidate a “charlatan.”
“Sitting silently and allowing him to embarrass our country is unacceptable,” Ciattarelli said then. “He is not fit to be president of the United States.” He later said he did not vote for Trump in 2016, and he criticized former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie for aligning himself with Trump.
On the campaign trail, Ciattarelli has focused mostly on how he’d take on Murphy, highlighting tax policies and the Democratic governor’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic. But his campaign has signaled it sees his history of criticizing Trump as a vulnerability: Ciattarelli attended a “Stop the Steal” rally, and he is backed by Rep. Jeff Van Drew, a former Democrat who switched parties and became a staunch Trump ally.
Ciattarelli also labeled his leading rival, engineer Hirsh Singh, a “fake MAGA candidate” in a recent ad, in which his campaign casts Singh as an opponent of law enforcement officers and highlights a 2014 Facebook post in which Singh wrote in response to the killing of Eric Garner that “police terror must stop.”
Singh — a perennial candidate who lost Republican primaries in the 2017 governor’s race and 2020 Senate race — has aligned himself as closely as possible with Trump, including hiring Trump’s former campaign manager.
He has backed Trump’s lies about widespread election fraud costing him the 2020 contest. And in a debate, Singh called Trump “the greatest president of my lifetime and probably for many people’s lifetimes, everyone who is alive today.” He also pulled out a hat that said “Trump won,” and he criticized Ciattarelli for acknowledging the reality that Biden defeated Trump.
“The Trump team filed 62 lawsuits around the country in regard to voter fraud and voter irregularity, two of those cases made their way to the Supreme Court which has a majority of Trump appointments and conservative justices, and both of those decisions went against the Trump team 9-0,” Ciattarelli responded. “Joe Biden is our president.”
Another debate was canceled after Singh refused to take a coronavirus test.
Pastor Phil Rizzo is competing with Singh for the Trump base. In May, he posted a photo with Trump at Mar-A-Lago. Trump’s 2020 campaign manager, Brad Parscale — who Singh hired to conduct polling — responded to Rizzo’s photo by tweeting that “getting a photo at Mar-a-Lago doesn’t erase your Never-Trumper history” and that Singh “is the only pro Trump candidate running.”
Also in the Republican race is former Franklin Mayor Brian Levine, who has not raised any significant money.