‘A little wiggle room’: GOP candidate winks at base as he tries to win Dems

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New Jersey‘s Republican gubernatorial nominee is using a novel approach to appeal to the state's Democrat-leaning electorate without angering the GOP base — and he’s letting the base in on it.

“I'm never gonna disrespect the base, but you guys got to give me a little wiggle room,” Jack Ciattarelli told a conservative crowd at a gun range in historically Republican Hunterdon County late last month, according to video footage obtained by POLITICO. “Give me a little wiggle room to spend time going to places Republicans typically don't go. And give me a little wiggle room on how to talk about issues. Because the goal is to win.”

Ciattarelli, a former state lawmaker who developed a reputation as a moderate, said he told an audience the same thing in even-redder Ocean County — the most pro-Trump county in the state.

“What I told them is, if you see me here too often, we're gonna lose,” he said at the gun range.

Ciattarelli has tried to walk this tightrope since launching his underdog campaign for governor in early 2020. It’s only gotten more challenging since he won the Republican primary last month after two candidates who ran to his right as Donald Trump acolytes split the MAGA vote. It’s also been a common strategy for any Republican running statewide in deep blue New Jersey.

The difference this year is that Ciattarelli is going public with his approach.

But the strategy is “hardly news,” Ciattarelli campaign spokesperson Stami Williams said in a statement to POLITICO.

“Jack is doing what he always does — having blunt and honest conversations with Democrats, Republicans, and Independents across New Jersey. Nothing is off limits,” Williams said. “He’s going everywhere and talking with — and listening to — everyone about issues that concern a majority of New Jerseyans.“

New Jersey Democrats haven’t seen one of their governors reelected since 1977, but Gov. Phil Murphy is in a strong position to break that trend. His approval rating, middling during the first two years of his term, spiked during the early stages of the pandemic. And while it’s gone down since then, recent polls have still showed it above 50 percent. One recent poll had him leading Ciattarelli by 15 percentage points.

Meanwhile, New Jersey Democrats have continued to outpace Republicans in voter registration. Former President Donald Trump’s unpopularity in the state, where he summers at his golf club in Bedminster, has also hurt Republicans’ fortunes.

During a question-and-answer session at the gun range event last month, Ciattarelli stressed that he’s won elections in places with a lot of Democrats because “I go places Republicans typically don't go.”

“I go into the brown community, I go into the Black community, I go into Democratic places. And I ... don't talk about abortion and gun rights. What I do talk about are ... things that everybody wants, no matter who they are,” he said.

“Everybody wants an opportunity. Everybody wants security. And I believe a common sense, conservative approach to lowering taxes, decreasing the size of government, providing private sector opportunity for business owners is what does that best. And when I do that, here's what I get,” Ciattarelli said as he nodding his head.

But during the same event, he also tossed red meat to the base. While criticizing a new school curriculum law that requires students be taught about societal contributions from LGBTQ and disabled people, Ciattarelli said, “we’re not teaching sodomy in 6th grade.”

Though Ciattarelli later clarified that by “sodomy” he was referring to unrelated requirements that children be able to identify vaginal, oral and anal sex by eighth grade, Murphy, along with other Democrats and gay rights organizations seized on the comment and ensured it dominated the headlines.

“The last thing we need is the use of words that everybody knows are third-rail words that have a knock-on meaning as well,” Murphy told reporters last week. “This is New Jersey. This is the United States in the year 2021. Enough already.”

Julie Roginsky, a Democratic strategist who was a top staffer on Murphy’s 2017 campaign but later broke with the governor, said Ciattarelli has the right idea in terms of messaging — he’s just not following it.

“Assemblyman Ciattarelli is saying absolutely the right thing about what Republicans have traditionally done and what they need to do to win statewide elections in New Jersey,” Roginsky said in an interview. “Unfortunately for him, he’s not doing it. He’s spending more time being bogged down in conversations about sodomy rather than talking to the people he knows he has to talk to about the issues he knows he needs to talk about.”

Even some Republicans are questioning Ciattarelli’s strategy.

Colin Reed, a GOP strategist who served in the communications office for former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, said that for Republicans to win in a deep blue state like New Jersey, they need to paint their Democratic opponent as “utterly unelectable” and present themselves as a “moderate alternative acceptable to the left of center electorate.”

“Any time you’re spending explaining campaign tactics and process instead of either disqualifying your opponent or explaining why you're the better alternative is just wasted [time],” said Reed, who also served as campaign manager for former Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.).

“Even if what he's saying might be true, there's zero political upside into explaining it to voters,” Reed said in an interview. “It's one of those things that I think belongs in an internal campaign strategy call rather than … a public event with voters you're trying to persuade.”

As a member of the General Assembly from 2011 to 2018, Ciattarelli represented a swing district in Central Jersey and was one of a small group of moderate GOP elected officials willing to publicly criticize Christie.

But his lurch right before and during the 2021 primary gave Democrats ammunition in a state where backlash against Trump in 2018 nearly wiped Republicans out of its congressional delegation.

Having once called Trump a “charlatan,” Ciattarelli began stressing during his unsuccessful GOP run for the 2017 gubernatorial nomination that he agreed with Trump‘s policies. During this year‘s primary campaign, he said he voted for Trump in 2020.

After Joe Biden was elected president, Ciattarelli was a featured speaker at a MAGA-backed “Stop the Steal” rally. But later on, while his primary opponents — Hirsh Singh and Phil RIzzo — aired false conspiracy theories that the 2020 election was stolen by Trump, Ciattarelli acknowledged that Biden had won.

On June 2, Ciattarelli held a town hall in Toms River that focused on issues like lowering property taxes, changing the state tax code.

“We've got the worst property taxes in the nation,” he said. “And this is the worst state in the union — year over year in the Business Journal — in which to do business. That's what I'm focused on.“

He also said that, “as a Republican, you've got to go places Republicans typically don't go. That's my obligation as a gubernatorial candidate. Those are citizens too. We're all equal in this, all 9 million of us.”

Daniel Han contributed to this report.

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