GOP primary offers NJ voters a tough choice
The governor’s office and the 120 legislative seats in Trenton are on the line next week as New Jersey holds its primary election amid anger and party division in several key races.
Republicans face a moment of truth in the race for governor as they choose between a traditional moderate with deep ties to the GOP establishment and a staunch supporter of Donald J. Trump who says the ex-president is still the president.
“The three things that keep us free?” Asks Hirsh Vardhan Singh, engineer and businessman, grandson of immigrants. “God, guns, Trump. “
Singh’s opponent, former Assembly member Jack Ciattarelli, is widely regarded as the Republican frontrunner. But at every step of that primary, Ciattarelli has been forced to strike a balance between appeasing the party’s Trump base and maintaining his credentials as an independent conservative from New Jersey.
Ciattarelli is perhaps the only Republican in the country to have attended a “Stop the Steal” rally while still comparing Trumpism to a terminal illness.
“Republicans have a right to believe whatever they want, but they don’t have the right to let cancer destroy the party,” he said in an interview this week with NJ Spotlight News.
Still the real NJ blue
Whoever wins, the GOP will have its work cut out for it in a state where Democrats have a huge advantage over registered voters. At Phil Murphy, Democrats also have a relatively popular incumbent who earned generally high marks for handling the coronavirus crisis despite the flow of deaths in nursing homes and initial confusion over vaccine distribution.
Murphy, a former Goldman Sachs executive, faces no real primary opposition and has been free to cover the airwaves with heartwarming ads touting his vigilance over the virus. Murphy’s $ 5 million media blitz also highlights the help he says he has given to workers, such as raising the minimum wage.
“No other state has our courage and our heart,” Murphy said in an ad.
New Jersey and Virginia are the only two states to hold gubernatorial elections this year. Although turnout in Tuesday’s primary is expected to be low with no nationwide run on the ballot, experts say it’s hard to predict how New Jersey voters might decide next week, especially with a provocative Trump still at the top of the Republican Party.
Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, says a recent poll shows Murphy could be “potentially vulnerable” in the fall. But Murray disagrees with Republicans’ claims that the latest figures show the governor ‘in trouble’, and said Murphy was likely to win, absent a campaign misstep. major, damaging revelation or abrupt economic downturn.
The results of the Monmouth poll, released on May 5, put Murphy’s approval rating at 57% of all New Jersey residents. That number, however, is down from its 71% approval at the start of the pandemic last year. The poll also indicated that 48% of residents say Murphy should be re-elected, while 43% would hand the job over to someone else.
“The re-election numbers are pretty typical for governors at this point,” Murray said. “The people of New Jersey like to wait before making their decision. It is still too early for them to decide. ”
Signs of dissatisfaction among voters
There are signs, however, that voters from both parties could be restless this primary season.
In the legislature, several incumbents face the unusual hurdle of leaving the party line after losing the support of party leaders. These races have captured the interest of voters, as incumbents find themselves campaigning against party leaders who have created and funded their careers for years.
All told, there are races contested in more than a dozen of the state’s 40 legislative districts, adding spice to the usually sleepy primary season. Perhaps the most-watched intramural race is in Bergen County, where Democratic Assembly members Valerie Vainieri Huttle and Gordon Johnson vie to replace Senator Loretta Weinberg in the 37th District.
Vainieri Huttle, in a recent interview with NJ Spotlight News, said she was running against the Democratic Party establishment “to protect democracy.” Party leaders, she said, failed to give her a fair vote at the Bergen County political convention before endorsing Johnson.
“How can we have a democracy if the endorsements are rigged? She declared.
It is Ciattarelli, however, who could face the biggest challenge of a nervous electorate.
Horse race in sight?
“The Republican primary could be great,” Murray said. “Ciattarelli looks solid. But in a small participation race, a few thousand votes here and there could make an impact and we could see a horse race. ”
So far, Ciattarelli’s campaign has easily overtaken Singh, Phil Rizzo and a fourth Republican candidate, former Somerset County independent landlord and Franklin Township Mayor Brian Levine. Only Ciattarelli and Murphy qualified for the corresponding state campaign funds.
A report released on Wednesday by state election regulators shows that Murphy, as of May 25, had raised Ciattarelli between $ 7.8 million and $ 6.9 million. Independent political groups, however, have so far spent more than $ 13.2 million on Murphy, compared to just over $ 65,000 for the Republican.
Singh, originally from Atlantic City, graduated in engineering from the New Jersey Institute of Technology and worked for his family’s engineering company in areas such as satellite navigation and aviation safety. He unsuccessfully ran for the GOP nomination for the U.S. Senate in 2020, finishing close to second.
Singh has advocated for major budget cuts and other conservative policies such as limiting spending on education and reducing the power of public sector unions.
But it is his outspoken advocacy for Trump and the MAGA program that has garnered the most attention. Like the ex-president, Singh says he is a staunch opponent of abortion rights who also supports Trump’s controversial policies on issues ranging from immigration to corporate taxes to gun rights. fire.
“Donald Trump was the greatest president of my life and probably for the lives of many people, all of whom are alive today,” Singh said in a recent public appearance, where he compared Ciattarelli to Liz Cheney and said he should be kicked out of the party as RINO. (Republican in name only) backstabber.
Ciattarelli, a former independent landowner in Somerset County who also served as Mayor of Raritan, served in the Legislative Assembly from 2011 to 2018. He is originally from Somerville and received an MBA from Seton Hall and went on to start a company of medical publishing.
He finished second in the 2017 Republican primary for governor.
Ciattarelli criticizes Singh
In an interview earlier this week, Ciattarelli said he was focusing on Murphy and the general election, although he acknowledged that as a Republican he would face ongoing questions about Trump and his influence on the party base. However, he called Singh a “liar and a loser”.
“And it’s recorded,” Ciattarelli said, calling a recent staged altercation between a member of Singh’s staff and his wife, Melinda, “shameful.”
“New Jersey voters know a bull when they see it,” Ciattarelli said. “Like any group of voters, they have very diverse opinions. But when it comes to voting for the governor, they’ll vote on common sense issues and that’s how I’ll win. This is how Republicans win. ”
Ciattarelli says his faith in the good sense of New Jersey voters is reflected in one fact: It has been 43 years since a Democratic governor was reelected. The last was Brendan Byrne in 1977. Intermediate Republicans like Christie Whitman and Tom Kean are the politicians voters trust in the long run, Ciattarelli said.
“People here know they live in the state with the highest property taxes,” he said. “They know the one-party regime is dangerous.
Last week, in a joint appearance on NJ101.5 that was the campaign’s only debate, Singh and Ciattarelli discussed a range of financial issues, including high property taxes, budget deficits and unpaid debt. pensions for public employees. NJ PBS and NJ Spotlight News canceled their scheduled debate after Singh reneged on his earlier agreement on debate procedures and COVID-19 testing requirements.
But the shoot was overshadowed by the behind-the-scenes argument between Singh’s assistant and Ciattarelli’s wife. In some ways, name calling and recriminations are symbolic of the family struggle within the GOP.
Traditional New Jersey Republicans, a mostly pragmatic group who pride themselves on being able to appeal to independents and even Democrats, are painfully aware that their party is coming to a crossroads next week. After getting through the Trump era and losing key battles against Murphy on progressive issues like the millionaire tax, they hope the Jersey GOP will return to its sane roots.
“We cannot continue to be the party where so much revolves around hate,” said Assembly Member Jon Bramnick, the leader of the GOP. “Hate is a losing strategy, and just being crazy is not a political strategy.”
“If we follow our old bread and butter pro-business and pro-growth, the voters will come with us,” said Bramnick. “They are not stupid.