Jack Ciattarelli doesn’t want to talk about Donald Trump.
The former New Jersey state lawmaker does want to win the GOP nomination to run against Gov. Phil Murphy in November. And many Republicans are tying themselves to Trump and the former president’s brand of politics.
But this is New Jersey, a deeply Democratic state that last year rejected Trump by about 16 percentage points. So Ciattarelli, who represented Hunterdon, Middlesex, and Somerset Counties in the General Assembly from 2011 to 2018, is sticking to a campaign focused on taxes, the state’s finances, and Murphy’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
“There’s one thing that all 1.4 million Republicans in New Jersey can agree on, and it’s that Phil Murphy shouldn’t have a second term,” Ciattarelli, 59, said in an interview. “I wouldn’t be surprised if Phil Murphy tries to make this election about Trump, but I’m not going to let that happen.”
Trump is still a powerful force in the GOP, with lawmakers in states including Pennsylvania maintaining allegiance to him — and to the Republican voters who overwhelmingly support him. But many Republicans agree that’s a losing strategy in New Jersey. And Ciattarelli believes people will focus their attention on local politics as Trump recedes from the public eye.
Ciattarelli has raised more than $1 million for the primary, enough to qualify for about $1.8 million in matching state funds. But he would face an uphill financial battle in the general election against Murphy, who spent more than $20 million of his own money in the 2017 primary and has already raised more than $3.5 million for his reelection campaign.
Murphy campaign manager Mollie Binotto touted the governor’s achievements, such as raising the minimum wage and investing in clean energy, as enjoying broad support in the state.
“Voters will have a clear choice between moving our state forward or going back to the failed and extreme politics that Trump-Christie Republicans like Jack Ciattarelli represent, and New Jersey isn’t going to go backwards,” she said in a statement.
But even as New Jersey voters reliably choose Democrats for president, they often pick Republicans to run the state. If Murphy wins reelection, he would become the first Democratic governor to do so since 1977.
The race will also serve as an early referendum on President Joe Biden’s administration. The year after President Barack Obama won his first term, Republican Chris Christie was elected governor — a sign of the GOP wave that followed. It also reflected “the split personality of New Jersey voters,” said Bill Palatucci, the state’s Republican national committeeman and a longtime Christie adviser.
Ciattarelli has the luxury of ignoring Trump, at least for now, because he’s seen as the only viable Republican in the race. Two other candidates are running with little party support.
In a state where Biden won all but five counties, some GOP strongholds remain: Ocean County went for Trump by close to 30 percentage points, and in South Jersey’s 2nd Congressional District Rep. Jeff Van Drew was reelected as a Republican after the longtime Democrat switched parties.
“New Jersey is a blue state, and it appears to be remaining a blue state,” Palatucci said. “That’s the starting point that most Republicans have to recognize and acknowledge. To run as a Trump candidate in a state like New Jersey would be suicidal.”
Until last month, former state GOP chairman Doug Steinhardt of Warren County was attempting just that. Steinhardt announced a run in December, and one of his campaign videos accused Ciattarelli of not being “an actual Republican” because of anti-Trump statements he made years ago.
But Steinhardt dropped out of the race a month later, days after the violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, which led to Trump’s second impeachment and a Senate trial that starts next week. A partner at a politically connected law firm, Steinhardt cited “unforeseen professional obligations” for his decision. He declined to comment for this article.
Jon Bramnick, the highest-ranking Republican in the General Assembly, considered a run for governor last year but concluded his moderate views and unapologetic condemnation of Trump would make him unelectable in a statewide GOP primary.
“I traveled around the state and I saw a very strong contingent of Republicans who were very strong for Trump, and I didn’t think I could get enough of the base,” said Bramnick, who represents parts of Union, Morris, and Somerset Counties and is running for state Senate this year. “I’m never going to go out there and be a Trump supporter — it wouldn’t be authentic, and nobody would believe it.”
With Steinhardt out, Ciattarelli is seen as the presumptive GOP nominee four months before the June primary.
Ciattarelli has his own complicated history with Trump. In 2015, he called Trump a “charlatan” who was unfit for the presidency but now says Trump’s policies helped the country. He attended a “Stop the Steal” rally near Trump’s Bedminster golf club two months ago but has since acknowledged the election was fair.
A Jersey native, entrepreneur, and former Raritan borough council member and Somerset County commissioner, Ciattarelli ran an underdog campaign for governor four years ago to succeed Christie but lost the primary to former Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno by a wide margin. He has a background in accounting and founded several publishing companies. He says his small-business experience makes him a practical counterpoint this year to Murphy, a former Goldman Sachs executive.
Ciattarelli has criticized Murphy’s handling of the pandemic, saying that his administration’s policies cost lives in nursing homes, that the state botched the vaccine rollout, and that Murphy’s restrictions on restaurants devastated the economy. He also said Murphy has failed New Jerseyans by focusing on progressive goals like marijuana legalization instead of the state’s long-standing fiscal problems.
“It does seem pretty obvious that he doesn’t understand New Jersey,” Ciattarelli said. “If he did, he’d never say he wants to make New Jersey the California of the East Coast. We have our own identity here, one we’re proud of.”