For GOP, primary fight offers stark choice

In picking a candidate to challenge Murphy, Republicans may be choosing what party they want to become
Credit: (hirshsingh.com; AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File; jack4nj.com)
GOP gubernatorial candidates, Hirsh Singh (left) and Jack Ciattarelli flank former President Donald Trump.

The governor’s office and all 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 governor’s race as they choose between a traditional moderate with deep ties to the GOP establishment and a fervent follower of Donald J. Trump who says the ex-president is still the president.

“The three things that keep us free?’’ asks Hirsh Vardhan Singh, an engineer and businessman who is the grandson of immigrants. “God, guns, Trump.’’

Singh’s opponent, former Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli, is widely viewed as the Republican favorite. But at every step in this primary, Ciattarelli has been forced to balance between appeasing the party’s Trump base and maintaining his credentials as an independent New Jersey conservative.

Ciattarelli may be the only Republican in the country who attended a “Stop the Steal” rally yet still likens Trumpism to a terminal disease.

“Republicans have the right to believe what they want, but they don’t have the right to let a cancer destroy the party,’’ he said in an interview this week with NJ Spotlight News.

Ciattarelli’s campaign said Thursday that the candidate was referring to Singh, not Trump in general.

Still true-blue NJ

Whoever wins, the GOP will have their work cut out in a state where Democrats have a huge advantage in registered voters. In Phil Murphy, the Democrats also have a relatively popular incumbent who won generally high marks for handling the coronavirus crisis despite the stream of nursing home deaths and initial confusion over vaccine distribution.

Murphy, a former Goldman Sachs executive, faces no real primary opposition and has been free to blanket the airwaves with feel-good commercials touting his vigilance on the virus. Murphy’s $5 million media blitz also highlights the help he says he delivered for working people, such as a minimum-wage hike.

“No other state has our grit and our heart,’’ Murphy says in one ad.

New Jersey and Virginia are the only two states holding gubernatorial elections this year. Although turnout in Tuesday’s primary is expected to be small with no national races on the ballot, experts say it’s hard to predict how New Jersey voters might decide next week, especially with a defiant Trump still atop the Republican Party.

Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, says a recent survey shows Murphy could be “potentially vulnerable” in the fall. But Murray disagrees with Republican claims that the latest numbers show the governor is “in trouble,” and said Murphy is likely to win, absent a major campaign misstep, a damaging revelation or a sharp economic downturn.

The Monmouth poll results, released May 5, put Murphy’s approval rating at 57% of all New Jersey residents. That number, however, is down from his 71%  approval in the early stages of the pandemic last year. The poll also said 48% of residents say Murphy should be reelected, while 43% would give the job to someone else.

“The re-election numbers are fairly typical for governors at this stage,’’ Murray said. “People in New Jersey like to wait before making their decision. It’s still way too early for them to make up their mind.’’

Signs of discontent among voters

There are signs, however, that voters in both parties may be restive this primary season.

In the Legislature, several incumbents face the unusual hurdle of running off the party line after losing the endorsement of party leaders. These races have sparked voter interest, as incumbents find themselves campaigning against the party bosses who created and financed their careers for years.

All told, there are contested races in more than a dozen of the state’s 40 legislative districts, adding zest 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 are vying to replace Sen. Loretta Weinberg in the 37th District.

Vainieri Huttle, in a recent interview with NJ Spotlight News, said she’s running against the Democratic party establishment “to protect democracy.” Party bosses, she said, failed to give her a fair vote at the Bergen County political convention before endorsing Johnson.

“How do we have a democracy if the endorsements are rigged?’’ she said.

It is Ciattarelli, however, who may face the biggest challenge from an edgy electorate.

Horse race in the offing?

“The Republican primary could be funky,’’ said Murray. “Ciattarelli looks strong. But in a small turnout race, a few thousands votes here and there could have an impact and we could be watching a horse race.’’

So far, Ciattarelli’s campaign has easily outraised Singh, Phil Rizzo and a fourth Republican candidate, former Somerset County freeholder and Franklin Township Mayor Brian Levine. Only Ciattarelli and Murphy have qualified for matching state campaign funds.

A report issued Wednesday by state elections regulators shows Murphy, as of May 25, has outraised Ciattarelli $7.8 million to $6.9 million. Independent political groups, however, have thus far spent more than $13.2 million for Murphy, compared to just over $65,000 for the Republican.

Singh, an Atlantic City native, has a degree in engineering from the New Jersey Institute of Technology and has worked for his family’s engineering business in areas such as satellite navigation and aviation security. He ran unsuccessfully for the GOP U.S. Senate nomination in 2020, finishing a close second.

Singh has advocated for deep budget cuts and other conservative policies such as limiting education spending and reducing the power of public-sector unions.

But it is his outspoken advocacy for Trump and the MAGA agenda that have garnered the most attention. Like the ex-president, Singh says he is a strong opponent of abortion rights who also supports controversial Trump policies on issues from immigration to corporate taxes to gun rights.

“Donald Trump was the greatest president of my lifetime and probably for many people’s lifetimes, everyone who is alive today,” Singh said at a recent public appearance, where he compared Ciattarelli to Liz Cheney and said he should be ejected from the party as RINO (Republican in Name Only) backstabber.

Ciattarelli, a former Somerset County freeholder who also was mayor of Raritan, served in the Legislature from 2011 to 2018. He is a Somerville native who graduated with an MBA from Seton Hall and later built a medical publishing company.

He finished second in the 2017 Republican gubernatorial primary.

Ciattarelli disses Singh

In an interview earlier this week, Ciattarelli said his focus was on Murphy and the general election, although he acknowledged that as a Republican he would face continuing questions about Trump and his influence on the party base. He did, however, refer to Singh “a liar and a loser.’’

“And that’s on the record,’’ Ciattarelli said, calling a recent staged altercation between a Singh staffer and his wife, Melinda, a “disgrace.’’

“New Jersey voters know bull when they see it,’’ Ciattarelli said. “Like any group of voters, they have a lot of diverse views. But when it comes down to voting for governor, they will vote on commonsense bread-and-butter issues and that’s how I will win. That’s how Republicans win.’’

Ciattarelli says his faith in the commonsense wisdom of New Jersey voters is reflected in a single fact: It’s been 43 years since a Democratic governor won reelection. The last was Brendan Byrne in 1977. Middle-of-the road Republicans like Christie Whitman and Tom Kean are the politicians voters trust in the long term, Ciattarelli said.

“People here know they live in the state with the highest property taxes,’’ he said. “They know one-party rule is dangerous.’’

Last week, in a joint appearance at NJ101.5 that served as the campaign’s only debate, Singh and Ciattarelli hashed over a range of financial issues, including high property taxes, budget shortfalls and the unpaid debt on public employee pensions. NJ PBS and NJ Spotlight News canceled their planned debate after Singh backtracked from his earlier agreement over debate procedures and COVID-19 testing requirements.

But the session was overshadowed by the backstage argument between the Singh aide and Ciattarelli’s wife. In some ways, the name-calling and recriminations are symbolic of the family struggle inside the GOP.

Traditional New Jersey Republicans, a mostly pragmatic lot who pride themselves on the ability to appeal to independents and even Democrats, are painfully aware that their party comes to a crossroads next week. After soldiering through the Trump era and losing key battles to Murphy on progressive issues like the millionaires tax, they hope the Jersey GOP will return to its sensible roots.

“We can’t continue to be the party where so many things are about hate,’’ said Assemblyman Jon Bramnick, the GOP leader. “Hate is a losing strategy, and simply being mad isn’t a political strategy.’’

“If we go with our old pro-business, pro-growth bread and butter, the voters will come with us,’’ Bramnick said. “They aren’t stupid.’’

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