Recriminations over a canceled debate. Arguments over who really supports Donald Trump — complete with a photo op at the former president’s Mar-a-Lago resort. A campaign manager accosting another candidate’s wife.
The Republican primary for New Jersey governor is increasingly contentious as Tuesday’s election nears, with name-calling, bitter personal attacks, and false claims of a stolen presidency. Trump looms over the contest in the same way he dominates GOP politics across the country — even in a Democratic state where President Joe Biden won more than 60% of the vote.
And with Trump still hugely popular among Republican voters in a state where Democrats outnumber them by more than one million, the candidates are competing to win over his supporters. That means the real winner of the GOP primary may be incumbent Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy.
“It’s great for Gov. Murphy that they’re fighting over Trump and not him,” said Mike DuHaime, a longtime Republican strategist in the state who worked for former Gov. Chris Christie.
The GOP front-runner, former state Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli, has tried to walk a tightrope of supporting Trump without making him a campaign centerpiece. He says he’d rather talk about local issues like property taxes and Murphy’s pandemic response.
But his opponents have made that harder. One, Hoboken pastor Phil Rizzo, posed for a picture with Trump in Florida, saying that “New Jersey 2021 can be a redo of 2016.” Another candidate, Atlantic County engineer Hirsh Singh, calls Trump “the greatest president of my lifetime.”
“If someone wants to be supportive of Donald Trump in the ways they have been, that’s their right,” Ciattarelli said of his opponents. “My focus is on Phil Murphy.”
Murphy is widely seen as the early favorite to win reelection. He would be the first Democratic governor in the state to do so since 1977. He entered the year in a strong position, thanks to broad approval of his handling of the pandemic. A poll last month found that his approval ratings have slipped but remain strong.
The focus on Trump has made it harder for Ciattarelli — who unsuccessfully ran for governor four years ago — to get his message across to the broader swath of voters he’ll need to win in a general election, DuHaime said.
“When Republicans are successful in New Jersey is when the debate is on taxes, jobs, and the economy,” DuHaime said. “Christie won by bringing in Democrats. ... And the voters have already litigated whether they want to support Trump.”
Though running unopposed in the Democratic primary, Murphy has already spent about $7 million, more than his Republican opponents combined. Ciattarelli has raised the most among Republicans, more than $7 million, and drawn broad support from Republican leaders and donors in the state.
Trump presents a conundrum for Ciattarelli. Murphy’s campaign tries to link Ciattarelli with the former president, citing his attendance at a “Stop the Steal” rally in November and unmasked campaign appearances last spring when the pandemic was still raging. But his Republican opponents say he’s a Never-Trumper.
Ciattarelli, 59, says the truth is somewhere in between. In 2015, he called Trump a “charlatan” who was unfit for the presidency, but now says Trump’s policies helped the country. He expressed confidence he’d earn the votes of Trump supporters by finding common ground over local issues.
“People are not looking to agree with their candidates 100% of the time,” he said. “They’re looking for authenticity.”
Ciattarelli’s opponents have attacked his conservative credentials, with Rizzo saying Ciattarelli wouldn’t protect gun rights and supports making coronavirus vaccines mandatory. “Watch out for FAKE conservatives!” he tweeted in April. He didn’t respond to requests for an interview.
Singh, who has mounted unsuccessful campaigns for a number of public offices, describes the primary on his website as the first battle in the Republican Party’s “civil war.” He’s repeated false claims of widespread voter fraud in the 2020 presidential election. When Ciattarelli said last month that Biden won the election, Singh used that to lump him in with “radical Democrats.”
Days before a televised debate last month, Singh said he wouldn’t participate because he refused to get vaccinated or take a COVID test as the organizers required. Rizzo and another GOP candidate, former Franklin Mayor and Somerset County Commissioner Brian Levine, didn’t reach the fund-raising threshold to qualify for the debate, and the event was canceled.
Then came a radio debate at New Jersey’s 101.5 FM station in Ewing, where a confrontation unfolded between Singh’s campaign manager and Ciattarelli’s wife.
As the candidates were on the air, Melinda Ciattarelli waited in a separate room. In a video posted on Singh campaign manager King Penna’s Facebook page, Penna taunted her, claiming her adult children lived at home.
“My son, he’s in the Army, you idiot,” she responded. When he continued to make accusations, she called him an “imbecile.” Penna retorted: “The only imbecile is you.”
The ambush drew outrage from Republicans, and Murphy called it “a new low.” Ciattarelli, who sent out fund-raising emails about the incident, said Singh and his campaign represent “everything wrong with politics today.”
“These are indecent people for whom politics is a blood sport,” he said.
Singh didn’t respond to requests for an interview.
A former Somerset County commissioner, Ciattarelli is an entrepreneur with a background in accounting and publishing who says he wants to reestablish the GOP brand in New Jersey as a party of problem-solvers. He has criticized Murphy’s public health restrictions, saying schools and businesses should have reopened months earlier, and says Murphy should be held accountable for the state’s high death rate in nursing homes.
“The dust will settle at the end of this primary,” he said. “And at the end of the day, we’re going to put the spotlight right over Phil Murphy’s failed record.”