Seeking red gains in blue Jersey

Seeking red gains in blue Jersey
© Courtesy of the Jack Ciattarelli Campaign

New Jersey GOP gubernatorial nominee Jack Ciattarelli is emerging as an early canary in the coal mine for Republicans’ chances to claw back ground in blue states that they lost during the Trump era.

Ciattarelli, a former state lawmaker and self-described “disciple of Lincoln,” is running in this November’s off-year election to unseat Gov. Phil Murphy (D) in a state that consistently votes blue in presidential and federal races and where Democrats boast a voter registration advantage of more than 1 million people.

Despite that edge, the Garden State had six GOP House members out of a 12-seat delegation until 2019 and a Republican governor until 2018. But during the Trump years, the GOP saw the governor’s mansion and four House seats slip away amid a backlash against the White House.

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Now, Ciattarelli’s campaign is offering an early indication of how much Republicans can bounce back in New Jersey and elsewhere now that former President TrumpDonald TrumpCuban embassy in Paris attacked by gasoline bombs Trump Jr. inches past DeSantis as most popular GOP figure in new poll: Axios Trump endorses Ken Paxton over George P. Bush in Texas attorney general race MORE — and his brand of politics — are no longer in the Oval Office.

Republicans, including Ciattarelli, acknowledge that unseating Murphy in November will be tough, but the Somerville native is looking to expand his appeal as much as possible by running in an old mold of New Jersey Republicans, one that observers describe as fiscally conservative and socially moderate.

In that vein, Ciattarelli has focused much of his campaign on issues such as New Jersey’s property taxes and government spending. And while he has policies on culture war issues like abortion and immigration, he says that’s not where his focus lies.

“I have an obligation to speak to those issues whenever anyone asks, but I think the reason why I’ve won seven races in this state, all in contests where Democrats outnumber Republicans, is because I focus on the two issues that matter most to people: opportunity and security,” Ciattarelli said in an interview. “I think a commonsense, conservative approach to government and ... lower taxes better provide opportunity and security.”

The GOP nominee has still waded into controversial issues on the trail, including in a video that surfaced this month of him promising to “roll back” public schools’ LGBTQ curriculum, saying that sixth graders won’t learn about “sodomy.”

But the most important strategic decision he’s had to make is how to approach Trump.

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Ciattarelli has worked to create distance with the former president during his campaign, a necessary maneuver in a state Trump lost by about 16 points in November.

He called Trump a “charlatan” in 2015 and did not vote for him in 2016. However, Ciattarelli did cast a ballot for the then-president last year.

He chalks up the reversal to the former president’s policies, including on China and the nomination of federal judges, though he has remained critical of Trump’s character, including saying his rhetoric “contributed to” the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection.

“It’s no secret that while I supported the president’s policies, I wasn’t a fan of his personality. I think a great many New Jerseyans felt the same way,” he said.

That strategy was enough to win Ciattarelli the GOP gubernatorial nomination, defeating a field of staunch Trump allies in last month’s primary.

But the general election will be a different animal — and a truer test of how the Republican brand can now fare in a blue state.

Ciattarelli points to historical trends when laying out his path. No Democratic governor in New Jersey has won reelection since 1977, and Republicans made rare gains in 2019 state legislative races, wins they say indicate displeasure with Murphy.

“I really think of New Jersey as a purple state that tints red when it comes to gubernatorial elections,” Ciattarelli said. “If you go out and talk to people about how you’re going to solve the problems that concern them most, they will vote for you no matter what your party registration.”

That opinion, however, is far from universal.

Surveys indicate Ciattarelli starts the general election on his back foot, with one poll from last month showing Murphy with a 48 percent to 33 percent edge.

Even Republicans concede that Democrats’ registration advantage alone gives Murphy a huge edge. And while his approval ratings are not through the roof, they aren’t dire either.

“I think any race against an incumbent Democrat in New Jersey is somewhat uphill for a Republican,” said Michael DuHaime, a GOP strategist who advised former New Jersey Gov. Chris ChristieChris ChristieChris Christie: Unvaccinated people don't want to be 'indoctrinated' by government Former lieutenant governor of New Jersey leaves GOP Half of states now restrict conversion therapy for LGBTQ kids MORE’s (R) campaigns. “It’s certainly winnable, but I think everybody understands that an advantage goes to an incumbent Democrat in a blue state like this.”

DuHaime said Murphy’s approval rating would have to dip further and the national environment would need to improve for the GOP for Ciattarelli’s fortunes to improve.

“You often need a Democrat that has flaws, and you also need a little bit of the political winds to blow in your favor as opposed to blowing in your face,” he said, adding that, “Right now [there’s] probably neither.”

What’s more, it’s unclear if Ciattarelli has put enough distance between himself and Trump, still a polarizing figure in New Jersey, where he has been staying at his Bedminster golf club.

While dismissing Trump’s character, Ciattarelli still makes a point of praising the former president’s policies. And in recognition of Trump’s power during the primary, he attended a “Stop the Steal” rally and took endorsements from some of his allies.

“It’s not clear that he’s actually doing it consistently,” said Patrick Murray, a Monmouth University pollster. “What we’re seeing from the Ciattarelli campaign right now is an attempt to maintain that image of being a typical moderate Republican that you’ve trusted in the past, but then still playing to the base.”

That delicate dance has offered Murphy’s campaign an opportunity to paint Ciattarelli as a Trump acolyte.

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“Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli is running on an extreme, Trump-style platform that would drag New Jersey backward. ... While Assemblyman Ciattarelli wants to return to failed and divisive policies of the past, Governor Murphy is focused on moving the state forward and building on the progress that’s been made to create a stronger, fairer New Jersey,” said Murphy campaign spokesperson Jerrel Harvey.

Should Ciattarelli’s perceived proximity to Trump sink him, it could offer an ominous sign for Republicans’ chances to retake ground in blue states. A landslide would signal that the former president’s hold on the GOP could hurt any Republican running in a liberal area — even one who fits the mold of past successful contenders.

Still, Republicans maintain that even an improvement over Trump’s landslide defeat would be welcome.

“Jack Ciattarelli and Republicans in New Jersey aren’t going to be happy with any loss, but certainly in New Jersey we’ve seen Republicans lose by 2 and we’ve seen us lose where we don’t even get to 40 percent of the vote,” said DuHaime. “And we certainly know the difference and what they might portend for the future.”

For his part, Ciattarelli says he is uninterested in reading the national tea leaves.

“I never really give thought to how the national Republican Party views my race,” he said. “I’m an American first, I’m a New Jerseyan second, I’m a Republican third and I really don’t see it through the prism of party affiliation.”