Trump Still a Force in New Jersey Gubernatorial Primary Race

Four Republicans are on the Tuesday ballot looking for their shot to go head-to-head with incumbent Phil Murphy in November, with some hoping to ride on the coattails of former President Donald Trump.

In this Tuesday, July 7, 2020 file photo, President Donald Trump listens during a “National Dialogue on Safely Reopening America’s Schools,” event in the East Room of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

(CN) — In the deeply blue state of New Jersey where Trump lost the 2020 election by 17 points, Republicans are still using him in their effort to become the candidate to deny Democratic Governor Phil Murphy a second term in Tuesday’s primary.

Running unopposed in the primary, Murphy’s likely competition in the fall will be either former state Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli or businessman Hirsh Singh.

Ciattarelli and Singh share similar views on the economy, infrastructure, immigration and guns, but the main contention between the two is former President Donald Trump.

Singh was born and raised in South Jersey, and received his engineering degree from the New Jersey Institute of Technology. This is not Singh’s first shot at governor. He ran in 2017 but never made it past the primary.

Singh is taking the pro-Trump approach in his efforts to push Murphy out, labeling himself as the only conservative in the race. Plastered on the homepage of Hirsh’s campaign website is a photo of former President Trump with the caption “God, Guns, Trump: The three things that keep us free.” 

His platform focuses on growing the state’s economy, school choice, infrastructure and a zero-tolerance policy on undocumented immigration.

Singh has been highly critical of Murphy and even sued him last year over an executive order that allowed the general election to be done mostly by mail due to Covid-19, and demanded a recount for the U.S. Senate seat won by incumbent Democrat Cory Booker. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear his case.

Frontrunner Ciattarelli is also born and raised in New Jersey, a former assemblyman and the owner of a medical publishing company.

Taking the family man approach to his campaign, Ciattarelli is running on the idea that New Jersey needs to be fixed. 

Ciattarelli’s key issues include making the Garden State an affordable place to live by lowering property taxes, growing the economy, ending New Jersey’s status as a “sanctuary state” and providing affordable and accessible health care. 

But Ciattarelli has flip-flopped on his support for Trump several times and his opponents are not shy in pointing it out.

Back in 2015 Ciattarelli called Trump a “charlatan” and said he was an embarrassment to the nation, unfit to be president. Yet in 2016 Ciattarelli said he had every intention to vote for Trump merely to end gridlock, but changed his mind after he heard the Access Hollywood tape where Trump boasted about touching women without their consent. Ciattarelli said he did not vote in the 2016 election for any presidential candidate.

Nowadays, Ciattarelli treads lightly when it comes to Trump, knowing the party’s loyalty to the former president. Ciattarelli tends to leave Trump out of the conversation, trying to focus strictly on policy, but he did attend a “Stop the Steal” rally in December 2020. He later said Joe Biden won fair and square.

At a debate hosted by a local radio station on May 25 between Singh and Ciattarelli, the only two candidates that qualified for the debate, Singh called Ciattarelli out for being a Never Trumper. But Ciattarelli dodged the attack by saying Trump had good policies and that he roots for any president to do well because he’s an American.

Singh did not back down, as he pulled out a red hat that read “Trump Won,” pressing Ciattarelli for saying that Joe Biden won, adding that Trump was the “greatest president of my lifetime.”

Ciattarelli was quick to defend himself.

“The Trump team filed 62 lawsuits around the country in regard to voter fraud and voter irregularity, two of those cases made their way to the Supreme Court which has a majority of Trump appointments and conservative justices, and both of those decisions went against the Trump team 9-0,” Ciattarelli said at the debate. “Joe Biden is our president.”

The Democratic Governors Association was quick to speak out against the two candidates following the debate.

“As the New Jersey GOP implodes, Jack Ciattarelli and Hirsh Singh agreed on one thing: they’re more loyal to Trump than they are to the hard-working people of New Jersey,” said DGA Senior Communications Advisor Christina Amestoy in a statement. “The debate last night proved that neither candidate is qualified to govern the great state of New Jersey. Ciattarelli and Singh are divisive, lying, and they’ve repeatedly failed to denounce violent extremism. New Jerseyans deserve better.”

There was supposed to be a second virtual debate hosted by PBS on May 26, but it was canceled after Singh refused to take a Covid-19 test to allow PBS to send a production crew to him.

Singh is not legally required to participate in two debates because he is self-financed, whereas Ciattarelli does have an obligation as a condition of receiving matching funds under the state’s gubernatorial matching funds program. 

According to the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission, Ciattarelli has raised nearly $7 million, $53,000 of that being a donation from himself and his family. Singh raised substantially less, coming in at nearly $550,000 with $418,000 from a personal loan from himself.

Incumbent Murphy accounts for more than half of funds raised during the primary, raising more than $7.8 million, with only about $25,000 of that coming from himself and his family.

Two other Republican candidates will appear on the ballot despite not qualifying for the debate, Pastor Philip Rizzo and accountant Brian Levine.

Rizzo is running on his plan to reopen New Jersey, arguing that Murphy has kept the state shut down for too long during the pandemic. Other key issues for Rizzo include education reform, lowering taxes and standing up for conservative values. 

Levine is standing behind his finance background, promising to fix New Jerseys’ fiscal issues by stabilizing taxes and providing incentives to small businesses. Levine said he also would like to make healthcare more affordable and accessible.

Political science professor at Seton Hall Jo Renee Formicola said that the Republicans do not have much of a chance.

“Murphy has an approval rating in the high 50’s,” said Formicola in an email. “The Republicans are outnumbered in the state as it is and there is nothing, at this point, that is significant enough to push them in a position to defeat the incumbent.”

A Monmouth University Polling Institute poll from early May gave Democratic incumbent Murphy a 57% approval rating among Garden State residents, but only 43% would like to see him reelected.

Director of the Institute Patrick Murray noted that those numbers could change come November.

“Murphy has a pretty strong job rating going into his reelection bid. However, New Jersey voters are a fickle lot and a good number will sit on the fence until we get closer to the fall campaign in case things go south for the state,” Murray said in a statement alongside the poll.

According to Murphy’s reelection site, he is committed to providing affordable housing, clean energy and criminal justice reform if reelected.

It has not been an easy year for governors around the country given a global pandemic but Murphy is only one of two governors, along with Governor Gavin Newsom in California, who is up for reelection and will have their feet held over the fire for their performance over the last year.

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