Jack Ciattarelli announced his candidacy for governor of New Jersey last Tuesday, January 21. It is not clear yet who will be his opponents in the 2021 Republican primary.
He does, however have an effective message for GOP primary election voters: Electability. This is an attractive theme for a party which is in its worst shape since the Watergate elections of 1973.
My view is that Phil Murphy is in solid shape for his 2021 reelection bid and that Jack Ciattarelli is the only Republican capable of giving the incumbent governor a competitive contest.
There are positive factors about Jack Ciattarelli and negative factors about his prospective NJGOP primary election opponents that account for my analysis.
Jack is an excellent campaigner, with erudite speaking skills and a conversational style that puts the listeners at ease.
His experience as a member of the Raritan borough council, Somerset County freeholder, and New Jersey state assemblyman has resulted in his being astoundingly conversant on both state and municipal issues. In debate, he displays this most impressively.
In election after election, the property tax issue offers the GOP candidates their best opportunity to mobilize suburban voters. Yet no GOP gubernatorial nominee has to date effectively utilized this issue because of the vexing problems involved for Republicans: the political difficulties in giving suburbs more school aid at the expense of urban districts, the traditional NJGOP commitment not to raise state taxes to fund increases in school aid, the mandates of the Abbott decisions, the obstacles to enacting constitutional amendments. Jack forthrightly addresses all concerns, and the listener is impressed, whether or not he or she agrees.
A governor is as politically effective and competent as are his top advisors as to “Outside Trenton politics” and “Inside Trenton politics.” Here is where I again utilize one of my patented and renowned sports analogies: the number one ranked Army football teams of 1944, 1945, and 1946, coached by the legendary Earl “Red” Blaik, whose assistant coach was Vince Lombardi, the greatest coach in the history of professional sports.
Those Army teams featured the greatest combination of outside and inside running game in the history of college football. And I say that as a former Navy officer!
“Mr. Outside” on those Army teams was Heisman Trophy winner halfback Glenn Davis. “Mr. Inside” was fullback Doc Blanchard.
Full disclosure: I greatly admired – and envied – Glenn Davis for something else: He dated for a period of time Elizabeth Taylor and was married to actress Terry Moore. My admiration for athletes is not limited to their on the field accomplishments!
The Jack Ciattarelli team features the most outstanding combination of “Mr. Outside – Mr. Inside” in the modern history of Trenton politics.
“Mr. Outside” on the Ciattarelli team is Republican political consultant Chris Russell. Karl Rove was the most effective Republican political consultant nationally I have yet seen, and Chris Russell is by far the top GOP consultant in contemporary New Jersey politics – an absolute master of message and media. And the character of Chris Russell is unimpeachable.
“Mr. Inside” on the Ciattarelli team is Trenton lobbyist and former Somerset County GOP Chair Dale Florio. In my over four decades of involvement in New Jersey politics, the two most effective lobbyists I have known are Democrat Harold Hodes and Republican Dale Florio. Dale is a person of supreme incisiveness as to both knowledge of the workings of state government and the predominant policy issues at any time.
The “Republican Florio”, as I have referred to him, is a rarity for a lobbyist in modern politics – Dale is both superbly effective yet unquestionably ethical. He would make an outstanding Chief of Staff in a Ciattarelli administration.
These are the positive factors that support a Ciattarelli message of electability. The negative factors regarding his prospective gubernatorial primary opponents, NJGOP Chair Doug Steinhardt and Assembly Republican Leader Jon Bramnick provide even more powerful evidence in support of Ciattarelli’s electability argument.
Steinhardt is a complete acolyte of President Donald Trump. Identification with Trump is a positive factor for a GOP gubernatorial candidate in a primary but an absolute catastrophe in the general election. Against Phil Murphy in 2021, Doug Steinhardt would lose by a margin comparable to the statewide margin of Tom Kean over Peter Shapiro in 1985.
To his credit, Jon Bramnick has courageously repudiated the policies and ethics of Donald Trump. Yet he fully embraced the policies and political leadership of former Governor Chris Christie during his administration, and he continues to do so.
Christie left office as the most unpopular governor over the past five decades. His unpopularity continues to be widespread in both political parties in New Jersey. The Christie albatross is an insuperable barrier to a Bramnick candidacy having a scintilla of electability in 2021 against Phil Murphy.
Jack Ciattarelli has maintained a perceptible distance between himself and both Trump and Christie over the past decade. This certainly makes him a far more electable gubernatorial candidate than either Steinhardt or Bramnick.
A Phil Murphy-Jack Ciattarelli gubernatorial contest in 2021 would be the most high-level campaign since the Tom Kean-Jim Florio cliffhanger of 1981. It was be a race between two erudite individuals, each with an excellent record of personal accomplishment and issue proficiency. The campaign would likely be one of strong issue contrast, devoid of bitter personal animus and mudslinging.
The race, however, will not be competitive unless Jack Ciattarelli takes one action before the advent of 2021. He must unequivocally repudiate both Trump and Trumpism. Polls taken since the beginning of the Senate impeachment trial reveal the increasing likelihood of Donald Trump losing his reelection contest in November by a large margin in both the popular vote and Electoral College.
The Republican prediction that impeachment by the Democratic House of Representatives would backfire has been proven to be an absurdity. National polls this past week show a majority of Americans favoring the Senate voting for the Articles of Impeachment to remove Trump from office.
In New Jersey, Trump was defeated by Hillary Clinton by 14 points in 2016, and that margin is likely to approach 20 percent this November. At that point, an increasing percentage of New Jersey Republicans, even erstwhile supporters of the president, will recognize the exigency of the NJGOP dissociating itself from Trump and Trumpism.
NJGOP party leaders will then recognize that Jack Ciattarelli is the only Republican gubernatorial candidate with any prospect of running a competitive race against Phil Murphy. It will depend, however, whether he is willing to take the step of renunciation of Donald Trump and all for which he stands.
Jack Ciattarelli is a Yankees fan. As to what course he will follow regarding removing the shackles of Trumpism from the soul of the NJGOP, in the words of the great Yankee broadcaster Melvin Albert Israel a/k/a Mel Allen, we shall see what we shall see.
Alan J. Steinberg served as Regional Administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of former President George W. Bush and as Executive Director of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission.