Battle for Trump base is upending New Jersey’s GOP primary

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New Jersey gubernatorial candidate Hirsh Singh convinced a conservative website in late April to publish a memo from an internal poll conducted by Brad Parscale, Donald Trump’s former campaign manager, showing Singh with a lead heading into the state’s June 8 Republican primary.

The next day, Phil Rizzo, a Baptist minister who is also seeking the GOP gubernatorial nomination, tweeted a picture of himself with Trump taken during a fundraiser at Mar-a-Lago for a congressional candidate from a different state.

The Parscale poll was scoffed at in New Jersey political circles, and Rizzo’s picture with Trump wasn’t accompanied by an endorsement from the former president. It was also derided by Parscale.

But the dueling messages show how hard Singh and Rizzo are trying to win over Trump’s base, which is still a force in New Jersey GOP politics despite the state’s strong anti-Trump bent. The two are associating themselves with figures from the former president’s orbit and repeating false conspiracy theories claiming he was the true winner of the 2020 election.

The battle for the base has cleared a path for Jack Ciattarelli, the frontrunner in the GOP primary. Many Republicans say Ciattarelli, who in 2015 called Trump a “charlatan,” is the only candidate with any shot at defeating Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy in November.

“I think Jack is going to win,” said state Sen. Joe Pennacchio (R-Morris), who served as New Jersey co-chair for Trump’s 2016 and 2020 campaigns but has endorsed Ciattarelli in the primary. “You have Rizzo and Singh both fighting for the same vote. They’re going to cannibalize that vote.”

Ciattarelli, who served three terms in the General Assembly, hasn’t disavowed Trump. He‘s offered praise for some of the former president’s policies, yet distanced himself from Trump’s personality, walking a fine line of being neither too anti-Trump for the primary nor too pro-Trump for the general election in a deeply blue state.

New Jersey is one of only two states — Virginia is the other — with a scheduled gubernatorial election this year, making the primary an early temperature check on the state of the Republican Party. Ciattarelli’s balancing act could be a sign of things to come in 2022, when Trump will almost certainly still be a factor in the mid-term elections and Republicans seeking governorships and other offices in blue and blueish states must try to navigate their way through primaries while remaining palatable to the general electorate.

“I believe if the other two were to win the primary, the focus is less on Phil Murphy and New Jersey,” Ciattarelli said in a recent interview. “So let's make it all about New Jersey. That's what I will do, and I'll be very very disciplined in that sense. Phil Murphy is going to want to continue to talk about [former Republican Gov.] Chris Christie and Donald Trump.”

No independent polling has been done on the race, but Ciattarelli has a huge fundraising advantage over his rivals. As of May 25, Ciattarelli, the only Republican candidate to qualify for public campaign financing from the state, had spent just shy of $6 million, compared to Singh’s $510,000 and Rizzo’s $442,000.

Murphy, who’s facing no challengers in the Democratic primary, saw his once-middling popularity spike during the pandemic, and while his approval rating has declined from the 70s at the height of the pandemic, he remains popular.

But he has vulnerabilities.

New Jersey has had the highest pandemic death rate of any state, largely due to thousands of deaths in nursing homes. Critics have faulted the Murphy administration’s directive that nursing homes, if able, readmit Covid-19 patients released from the hospital. The state’s unemployment rate has been slow to recover from the pandemic and remains one of the highest in the nation. And early in his term, Murphy’s administration faced a grilling from public officials over its decision to hire a campaign staffer for a high-ranking state government role even though a campaign volunteer had accused him of sexual assault in 2017.

In recent years, the administration’s scandals were often overshadowed by the constant flow of news from the Trump administration. Backlash to the former president has helped Democrats take control of some suburban towns throughout New Jersey as well as one county — Ciattarelli’s native Somerset — the GOP held for decades. In the 2018 midterms, the state’s congressional delegation went from seven Democrats and five Republicans to 11 Democrats and one Republican. (One of those Democrats, Jeff Van Drew, later became a Republican after declaring his “undying support“ for Trump.)

The Murphy campaign has released a number of press releases with reminders about Ciattarelli’s pro-Trump statements and his attendance at a “Stop the Steal” rally in the fall, when he was expected to face a more formidable pro-Trump rival in the GOP primary in then-Republican State Chair Doug Steinhardt.

“The question New Jerseyans need an answer to is: How far is Ciattarelli willing to go to placate the far-right? He’s apparently fine being on the ballot with an Oath Keeper, so how about a Proud Boy? Or a KKK member? Or a neo-Nazi?” New Jersey Democratic State Committee spokesperson Phil Swibinski said in a recent press release, referring to Ciattarelli’s refusal to disavow a member of the far-right Oath Keepers who’s running for Assembly in North Jersey.

During the only debate of the Republican primary last month, Ciattarelli said he supported many of Trump’s policies.

“He played hardball with China, went to war with ISIS, recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. His economy was great,” Ciattarelli said.

But during an interview with POLITICO last week, Ciattarelli also offered some criticisms of the Trump administration’s policies as they related to New Jersey, such as limiting the amount of state and local taxes residents can write off on their federal taxes and holding up funding for the Gateway project to build a new rail tunnel between New Jersey and Manhattan, and acknowledged that the GOP has faced political backlash from Trumpism.

“Certainly Republicans have not fared well in New Jersey during the Trump era, so while his policies worked at the national level, there were policies on which I disagreed with the president,” he said.

Ciattarelli’s pro-Trump statements pale in comparison to those of his rivals.

During last month’s debate, Singh called Trump “the greatest president of my lifetime” and repeated the lie promoted by Trump and his allies that the 2020 election was stolen. “We all know Trump won,” he said.

Singh’s campaign even got into it with Ciattarelli’s wife, Melinda, over Trump. While watching the radio debate in a back room at the station, King Penna, Singh‘s campaign manager, called Ciattarelli a “never Trumpian loser” and said, “He didn’t vote for Trump. Neither did you.”

“Yes he did. He did support [Trump],” Melinda Ciattarelli said.

Some New Jersey Republican leaders see Singh’s embrace of Trump as a cynical ploy. This is Singh’s fourth campaign for office in as many years. He ran for governor in 2017, the U.S. House in 2018 and U.S. Senate in 2020, never clinching the Republican nomination. Keith Davis, the GOP chair of Singh’s home county of Atlantic, said Singh does not appear interested in working his way up to running for a prominent office.

“Hirsh Singh wants to be something. He doesn’t want to do something. He has latched onto this message in the primary because he thinks it will get him somewhere,” said Davis, who backs Ciattarelli.

Rizzo has used the slogan “Make New Jersey Great Again” and has promoted false conspiracy theories common among Trump supporters that the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol was conducted by left-wing activists dressed in MAGA gear. Rizzo has held a fundraiser at a Trump-owned golf course in Monmouth County and hired as a political consultant George Gilmore, a former powerful political boss in New Jersey whose criminal tax convictions were pardoned by Trump during his last day in office.

Singh and Rizzo did not respond to calls seeking comment. But Democrats have made it clear they want to hear more from them.

The Democratic Governors Association, which Murphy formerly chaired, recently leaked a poll of the Republican primary it commissioned from a Democratic firm, Public Policy Polling. It showed Ciattarelli leading Singh 29 percent to 23 percent, with Rizzo at 8 percent.

Republicans were skeptical of the poll based, among other things, on the source. And the DGA likely would not have leaked it if they didn’t want it to send a message. But the poll also showed Ciattarelli has a pathway to the nomination, albeit perhaps a narrower-than-expected one, by splitting the MAGA vote.

There is one scenario that could propel one of the two to a win: An explicit endorsement from Trump, who’s summering in Bedminster. But with just days to go before the primary, there’s no indication that will happen.

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