Ciattarelli’s victory is likely a relief to the more moderate members of New Jersey’s GOP establishment who watched their already-minority party lose ground during Trump’s presidency as some once-solid Republican areas, including Ciattarelli’s home county of Somerset, in Central Jersey, shifted Democratic. It also gives New Jersey Republicans a standard-bearer who more closely resembles Republicans who have won statewide elections in the past.
New Jersey is the only state with an incumbent governor on the ballot this year. Murphy, who is seeking a second term, ran unopposed in the Democratic primary.
Ciattarelli is facing long odds in his quest to defeat Murphy, an unabashed progressive whose popularity shot up when the coroanvirus pandemic ravaged the state. According to polls released this week, Murphy heads into the general election campaign with a 55 percent approval rating and a commanding 52 percent to 26 percent lead over Ciattarelli in a state that has about a million more registered Democrats than Republicans.
Still, Ciattarelli remains undeterred about his chances in November. New Jersey hasn’t reelected a Democratic governor since Brendan Byrne in 1977, as residents have shown a willingness to vote for Republicans for state offices while voting Democratic in federal statewide elections.
“In four decades, no incumbent Democratic governor of New Jersey has been reelected. Not Jim Florio, not Jim McGreevey, not Jon Corzine. Guys, the same goes for Phil Murphy. He’s one and done in 21,” Ciattarelli said during his victory speech.
While Trump — who has pitched camp for the summer at his golf club in Bedminster — has little to do with governing New Jersey and is officially a resident of Florida, he was a dominant issue in the campaign.
Engineer and perennial candidate Hirsh Singh and pastor Phil Rizzo — Ciattarelli’s two main rivals for the nomination — sought to appeal to Trump’s base, including by repeating false claims that last year’s presidential election was stolen. A fake Trump endorsement of Singh even circulated online, causing Trump adviser Jason Miller to denounce it on Twitter.
But Ciattarelli hasn’t totally disavowed the former president and has had to walk a tightrope of being neither too anti-Trump for the primary nor too pro-Trump for the general election in a deeply blue state. Singh and Rizzo combined for nearly half the vote in Tuesday’s election — indicating Trump’s base is still a force in Republican politics, one Ciattarelli may not be able to afford to alienate in the general election.
Though critical of Trump early in the 2016 presidential campaign, Ciattarelli softened his rhetoric after Trump’s election and said during the primary campaign that he supported many of the former president’s policies. When it appeared he would face a tougher challenge from then-GOP state Chair Doug Steinhardt, who was running as the pro-Trump candidate, Ciattarelli appeared at a “Stop the Steal” rally. (Steinhardt, a partner at a prominent New Jersey law firm, dropped out shortly after the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.)
Ciattarelli’s balancing act — and how it plays in the general election campaign against Murphy — could be a sign of things to come in 2022, when Trump will almost certainly be a factor in the midterm elections. Republicans seeking governorships and other offices in blue and blueish states must try to navigate their way through primaries while remaining palatable to the general electorate.
While Ciattarelli was the heavy favorite to secure the GOP nomination — he won the backing of every county Republican organization in the state — he had a tougher time than expected and ran negative ads against Singh and Rizzo in the run-up to Tuesday’s election.
Ciattarelli, 59, is a CPA and former owner of a medical publishing business and a marketing company. He ran for governor in 2017, even after being diagnosed with throat cancer…