MAGA Mounts Bid For GOP Nomination In New Jersey Against The Mainstream

It’s MAGA versus the mainstream in Tuesday’s GOP gubernatorial primary, as two candidates who adhere to the ideology of Donald Trump face off against a former state assemblyman who fits the pre-Trump Republican mold. The contest is particularly notable because it’s the first statewide election in the country since the November presidential contest (Virginia also has a gubernatorial election Tuesday), and so it might serve as a test of whether Trumpism has staying power. 

The winner faces Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat who does not have an opponent in his party’s primary. Murphy is relatively popular in this blue state, but only 48% of respondents in a recent Monmouth University poll said he deserves a second term. Plus, he’s up against history: An incumbent Democrat hasn’t been reelected governor in New Jersey since 1977. 

While the state’s electorate consistently votes Democratic in statewide races, independents represent a sizable swing vote and the Republican electorate is largely behind Trump — polled after the election, a majority said they didn’t think he lost last November’s election. 

Candidates Hirsh Singh, an engineer who has unsuccessfully run for congress, governor, and senate, and Phil Rizzo, a real estate developer and pastor, both believe that former President Trump won. Singh called Trump the greatest president of his lifetime at a debate last month, and Rizzo describes himself as the “medical freedom candidate,” claiming masks don’t work and have psychologically damaged children. 

Jack Ciattarelli, a former accountant and business owner who served two terms in the Assembly and unsuccessfully sought the Republican gubernatorial nomination four years ago, is the front-runner. He secured endorsements from all 21 county GOP committees and has spent five times more on the race than his opponents. He is running the most traditional Republican campaign, focused on the state’s high property taxes, opposition to sanctuary state policies that protect undocumented immigrants, and criticism of Murphy for his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic — particularly deaths at nursing homes and lockdown restrictions that hurt businesses. 

On the stump last month in Kenilworth, Union County, Ciattarelli told a group of retired police officers and firefighters his family’s story of discipline and hard work. His opening anecdote about his take-no-nonsense Italian mother was immediately reminiscent of the rhetorical approach of the last Republican governor of the state, Chris Christie, who often told stories about his mother.

“My two brothers and I, we could raise some hell around the house, and she never, ever once said, ‘Wait til your father gets home,’” Ciattarelli said. “All she had to do was open that utensil drawer in the kitchen. She purposely pulled it out real hard. You knew that noise when you heard it. And she always had more than one wooden spoon cause she’d break one now and then.”

Ciattarelli’s fiscally minded politics are also reminiscent of Christie’s. He blames the state’s sky-high property taxes in part on how a disproportionate amount of school funding goes to districts with disadvantaged students. “The communities we all live in, excuse my French, are getting screwed when it comes to state aid for schools,” Ciattarelli told the crowd in Kenilworth, which skewed older and white.

During the event, one word did not come up: Trump. No one even asked about the former president, suggesting that he doesn’t loom as large as might be expected when it comes to state politics. Ciattarelli has performed a delicate dance on Trump: In 2015, he called the then-presidential candidate a “charlatan” and in 2016, he skipped voting for president at all. Ciattarelli voted for him in 2020, saying he agreed with Trump’s first-term policies, but acknowledged he lost to now-President Joe Biden.  

“I don’t think it’s any secret I’ve never been a big fan of the president’s personality, but I did support him,” Ciattarelli said. “I attended the rallies, I attended the parades, I attended the flotillas. We even went out of our pocket for 3,000 Trump-Pence lawn signs all over the state.”

Still, he said, his campaign is about Murphy, who’s “trying to jam a progressive California agenda down our throats — that’s not who we are in New Jersey.” But Murphy will be sure to try to make the general election, regardless of who becomes the Republican nominee, about Trump, who is deeply unpopular in the state. 

At a candidate debate on 101.5 FM last month, Singh distinguished himself from Ciattarelli, his only debate opponent, on the issue of Trump. “We all know Trump won,” he said. “This is something without a doubt.” Singh disparagingly called Ciattarelli a “Liz Cheney-Mitt Romney” Republican. 

In a bizarre encounter behind the scenes during the debate, Singh’s campaign manager filmed himself baiting Ciattarelli’s wife about the Ciattarellis’ support for Trump and whether their children legally vote in New Jersey. Melinda Ciattarelli responded by calling Singh an “idiot” and “imbecile.” Ciattarelli later tweeted that he was proud of his wife, and sent two fundraising emails highlighting the encounter. 

Singh is almost entirely self-funded, and in a past campaign he received the bulk of his financial support from his father. In the debate, Ciattarelli noted that Singh lives with his parents. 

The other candidate hoping to capitalize off the pro-Trump approach is Rizzo, who is on a leave of absence from pastoring a church he started in Hudson County and recently came under scrutiny when Politico reported he sold his mansion in Morris County to the church. Since it’s now a parsonage, Rizzo doesn’t pay taxes on it.

Phil Rizzo stands and speaks to a customer at a diner

Gubernatorial candidate Phil Rizzo campaigning at the Hightstown Diner in Central Jersey. Matt Katz / WNYC

Rizzo tweeted a picture with Trump and has held events at Trump’s clubs, but he said he is seeking to appeal to a broader electorate. He said he has stronger conservative credentials on the 2nd Amendment and pro-life issues than Ciattarelli does. 

“If people are going to vote for a Trump supporter, I’m here, but I’m coming with real solutions and a real plan to get New Jersey families back on track,” he said.

Campaigning at the Hightstown Diner in Central Jersey last week, Rizzo said Ciattarelli should not have released photos of himself wearing masks and getting vaccinated. “That’s not medical freedom; that’s pushing an agenda of control via vaccine,” Rizzo said. 

Asked if he was vaccinated, Rizzo said: “That’s none of your business, or anybody that’s really…It’s not the government’s job to keep us healthy. It’s the government’s job to keep us free.” Rizzo said he refused to close his church during the lockdown, despite the governor’s orders. 

Rizzo’s “medical freedom” mantra resonated with voter Bonnie Mecca, who came to the diner to meet Rizzo. She said she’s furious with the mask mandates and lockdown restrictions imposed by Murphy.

People are walking around scared for their lives, as if corona’s living in the trees somewhere,” she said. “I’ve never seen anything like this and the Jersey I knew. I’m not going to age myself, but the Jersey I knew 15 years ago wouldn’t stand for this, no way in hell.”

Mecca predicted that support for Trump would be important to voters in Tuesday’s primary. “I think it very much matters because Trump will, has been, and will always be the template for the Republican party,” she said. “It’s just how it is.”

But at the Ciattarelli campaign stop, Trump was a non-entity. Sandy Danco, a retired police chief, said the race was about beating Murphy, not Trump, and on that front Ciattarelli won his vote. 

“He stood up here for almost 15, 20 minutes without benefit of notes and everything came right off his head,” Danco said. “And you can tell that a person is sincere and honest that does that.” 

A fourth candidate, former Franklin Township Mayor Brian Levine, is running a limited campaign. 

Trump has not endorsed in the race.