Can Jack Ciattarelli Topple Gov. Murphy?

The GOP frontrunner veers toward the middle in his quest to be our next governor. But can he steer clear of Donald Trump?

Jack Ciattarelli

Gubernatorial hopeful Jack Ciattarelli strolls through Raritan Township, where he grew up and served as mayor before being elected to the state Assembly. Photo by Christopher Lane

For a few tense weeks between the presidential election and the inauguration, this year’s race for the Republican gubernatorial nomination in New Jersey was shaping up as one of the nation’s earliest electoral judgments on the Trump years. Two major candidates were seeking the nod to run against Democratic Governor Phil Murphy this November, and the main issue dividing them was the depth of their support for the former president, who often weekended in Bedminster.

Jack Ciattarelli had announced his candidacy in January 2020, back in the pre-pandemic era, when you could still gladhand at a county chairman’s dinner. In fact, he had been running unofficially since 2017, when Kim Guadagno, the Republican lieutenant governor he had challenged unsuccessfully in that year’s primary, lost to Murphy. Ciattarelli (pronounced chet-uh-RELLY) describes himself as a “common-sense conservative” who occupies a “middle lane.” Some might liken him to the most recent two-term Republican governors: Tom Kean, Christie Whitman and Chris Christie. In his 2020 kickoff speech at his old elementary school in Raritan Borough, he didn’t even mention Donald Trump.

Ciattarelli was not alone in the race. In early December, shortly after the presidential election, Doug Steinhardt stepped down as chairman of the Republican State Committee, a position in which he had been busily navigating party circles for three years, and announced his candidacy with a video shot on the Warren County farm where he grew up and his parents still live. “Let me be really clear about this,” he said. “I support President Trump. I always have.” 

Because New Jersey is one of only two states to elect a governor in the year after a presidential election (Virginia is the other), it looked as if its Republican primary voters might be among the first American voters to render a verdict on the Trump legacy. Primaries are often costly and bloody affairs in which a small number of diehard voters can pull a party toward its ideological edges. The Democrats avoided a primary battle between their center and their left in 2017 when Steve Sweeney, the state Senate president, decided not to challenge Murphy; the Republicans were facing a similar battle between their center and their right.

But then came January 6.

“The head of the Republican Party inciting an insurrection to the U.S. Capitol is not the way to start 2021 if you’re a Republican,” says Bill Palatucci, the Republican national committeeman from New Jersey. He was driving through Georgia that afternoon, near the end of a two-day trip to the committee’s winter meeting in Amelia Island, Florida, when he heard the president’s response to the attack. He pulled over to tweet: “Not good enough Mr. President. Time to concede and agree to the peaceful transfer of power which is our great America (sic) tradition.”

“We are in completely uncharted waters,” Palatucci says, “and so we’ll have to see what the short and long-term effects are of what happened on January 6.”

The first apparent short-term effect was the abrupt exit of Steinhardt from the race five days later—although he denies the connection. “I want to make it very clear that the events in Washington on January 6 had no impact on my decision to leave the governor’s race,” Steinhardt told the conservative political blog Save Jersey. (He did not respond to New Jersey Monthly’s interview requests.) Steinhardt cited instead “unforeseen professional obligations.” Steinhardt, the former mayor of Lopatcong Township, is a law partner of former Democratic governor Jim Florio. 

“I was pleasantly surprised,” former governor Tom Kean says about what now looks like a clear path to the nomination for Ciattarelli, “because if we have any chance at all of capturing the governorship, you’ve got to unify the party. You can’t have a knock-down, drag-out primary.”

There are several other announced candidates—including Hirsh Singh, who has run unsuccessfully for Congress, Senate and governor in recent years, and Brian Levine, a former mayor and freeholder in Somerset County—but Ciattarelli had already started collecting crucial endorsements from county party chairs before Steinhardt exited, and more came in quickly after.

“He’s the only viable candidate in the field, and it’s incumbent that all Republicans get behind him,” says Keith Davis, chairman of the Atlantic County Republican Committee. The Republican primary is scheduled for June 8.

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In a state where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than a million voters, the path to Trenton for Republicans runs through the middle.

“What we need to do,” Ciattarelli says, “is appeal to the majority party in the state, which are the 2.4 million unaffiliated independent voters, who tend to lean right, by the way, and the soft Democrats who are just as upset as we are about high property taxes.”

Ciattarelli grew up in a four-family house in Raritan with 16 family members across three generations: his Italian-immigrant grandparents, their three children and spouses, and their children’s children. When his parents moved to a house of their own, it was just a few blocks away, near the statue of John Basilone, the revered World War II hero the town still honors with an annual parade. Ciattarelli’s father worked days for PSE&G; his mother worked nights at a Johnson & Johnson plant. Between them, they operated the small bar and restaurant they owned in town for a time. “It was a magnificent middle-class life,” Ciattarelli says. “The kind that was achievable back then in New Jersey.”

He was the first in his family to go to college—Seton Hall—and when he came back to Raritan with an MBA and a CPA, the Republican mayor of the largely Democratic town recruited him to run for borough council. “He said, ‘You’ve got to know, we’re outnumbered three to one,’ and I said, ‘That’s my kind of contest; let’s roll,’” Ciattarelli says. He lost that first race, but then won, and won again. He went on to serve as a county freeholder and state assemblyman. “I’ve won seven races in this state—two at the municipal level, two at the county level, three at the state Legislature—and six of the seven times in races where Democrats outnumbered Republicans, and sometimes greatly.”

But staying near the middle as a Republican has been tricky in the Trump era. Another moderate Republican, Assembly minority leader Jon Bramnick, decided against a run for governor when it became clear he had been too critical of Trump to get anywhere in the primary. “That doesn’t mean I disagree with everything Donald Trump’s done, but I’m not a member of a cult,” he says. “It’s taken us 25 years to convince people that Republicans aren’t just rich and arrogant, and he took care of that in about 10 minutes, making us rich and arrogant again. It will take a while for people to realize that the Republican party is not the party of Trump.” 

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Ciattarelli has sometimes been critical, too. In 2015, he called Trump “a charlatan who is out of step with American values” and who “is not fit to be president.” But in January 2020, he attended the Trump rally in Wildwood, and in November, he spoke at a Stop the Steal rally in Bedminster. “That turned into something else after I was there,” he says. “It was never advertised to me as a Stop the Steal rally.”

“He’s kind of played both sides with Trump in terms of going against him, but then embracing him,” says Ashley Koning, assistant research professor and director of the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling at Rutgers. “Steinhardt may have been more of a blatant core supporter, but there’s still the issue of Trump with Ciattarelli as well.”

And in the fall election in a state that Trump lost by 16 points—despite the attention-grabbing boat parades and Parkway caravans and the convincing win by Jeff Van Drew, who held his Republican seat in the Second Congressional District in the southernmost reaches of New Jersey—the Democratic strategy will be to say the former president’s name far more often than the Republicans are likely to.

“You can’t win a general election in New Jersey having any association with what was Donald Trump, and it’s going to be difficult to win even without it,” says Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute.

The entire Legislature is up for election in the fall, too—80 Assembly seats and 40 Senate seats—and the prevailing hope among Republicans is that the political strategy behind the 1947 state Constitution, which established New Jersey’s distinctive off-year election schedule as a way to divorce state issues from national ones, will help them. “The importance of a gubernatorial election merits an election that will not be overshadowed by a national contest for the presidency,” Governor Alfred E. Driscoll argued that year to the state Constitutional Convention. 

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Sticking to state issues was Republican Anthony Bucco’s strategy as he defended his state Senate seat in a special election in November—the only Senate race in New Jersey last year—in traditionally Republican Morris County. (The county voted for Trump in 2016, but flipped to Biden in 2020.) “Certainly, last year the presidential election sucked all the oxygen out of the room,” Bucco says. “Donald Trump lost my district by about 11,000 votes, but I won it by 10,000. People responded to the message we put out, and I think that bodes well overall for the GOP this year.”

New Jersey hasn’t elected a Republican to the U.S. Senate since Clifford Case in 1972, and the Blue Wave of the 2018 midterms left the state with only one Republican congressman, the entrenched Chris Smith, who went to Washington with Ronald Reagan in 1981 and is still there. (Van Drew gave the delegation a second Republican when he switched parties last year after being elected as a Democrat.) And it’s been 20 years since the GOP held the majority in both houses of the state legislature.

The office of governor, though, has been a different story. No Democratic governor has managed to get elected to a second term in New Jersey since Brendan Byrne in 1977. “When it comes to state politics, New Jersey is blue, but not as richly blue as it is in national elections,” says Ben Dworkin, director of the Rowan Institute for Public Policy and Citizenship. “The Murphy campaign team understands that, while there are certain things in their favor, this is going to be a competitive race, and he’s fighting a historical trend.”

Another historical trend adds to Republican hopes. The state’s gubernatorial election in recent decades has looked like a referendum on the previous year’s presidential election. Every four years since 1989 —when New Jersey chose a Democratic governor, Jim Florio, a year after the nation chose a Republican president, George H.W. Bush—the party that won the presidency nationally went on to lose the governorship in the state.  

“But the X factor here is Donald Trump himself,” Dworkin says. “The issue for New Jersey Republicans is that Donald Trump is the guest who won’t leave. It seems to me foolish to expect that Donald Trump will have nothing to say about the upcoming elections in New Jersey, and therefore, we are far from a post-Trump world.”

For now, Republicans in New Jersey are trying to say the name Ciattarelli more often than they say Trump. “In my opinion, we don’t even have to really address President Trump anymore,” says state senator Michael Testa of Vineland, state cochair of Trump’s 2020 campaign. In 2019, Testa won the special election for the seat Van Drew vacated when he was elected to Congress, flipping it to the Republicans. “He’s no longer in the White House, and we have one major opponent in the state, and that is Phil Murphy.”

Testa, who spoke at the Trump rally in Wildwood, says of himself: “I don’t think there’s anyone more conservative than me in Trenton.” Still, as the Cumberland County Republican chairman, he quickly endorsed Ciattarelli after Steinhardt’s exit, and he is fond of citing former Governor Kean’s 1988 book, The Politics of Inclusion. When Phil Murphy was quarantined after Covid-19 exposure, Testa ordered a pizza delivered to his house, “just as a gesture of fellow humanity.” 

Kean is cited often these days as a model for the brand of Republicanism that works best in New Jersey—his personal civility, as well as the political dexterity that led him to be elected twice as Assembly speaker by a Democrat-controlled chamber. But can that world still exist?

“You’ve got to try to get back to that in this country,” says Kean, the son of a Congressman and grandson of a senator, who was “appalled” by the attack on what he called “the holy of holies,” the Capitol through which he ranged freely as a boy. “And New Jersey hopefully might be able to set an example, because you really cannot progress unless you find a way where the two parties can get along on issues and compromise on issues.” 

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