Most sources in the GOP see a tightening in the Republican Primary for Governor, evidenced most significantly by an ad this week released by the Guadagno Campaign that hammers away at Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli (R-16). But although he has closed the gap and sources in his camp insist that the contest has narrowed to a single-digit slug-fest, Ciattarelli faces the daunting prospect of trying to galvanize mountain men, skeet-pulling gun owners, and movement conservative voters who strenuously resist so-called RINOs and general election GOP brand names. In short, the assemblyman arguably must seal the deal with that 25-30% Schundler-Lonegan-Doherty wing of the Republican Party in the final weeks of the campaign to finish off establishment Republican Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno, while not moving too far to the right to jeopardize his general election standing.
Ciattarelli makes the case for himself as a general election winner, a guy who can withstand the kind of lava flow the Democrats poured into LD16 to extract Assemblywoman Donna Simon (R-16) from her seat in the 2014 election. “There is nothing conservative about government getting involved in personal issues,” Ciattarelli – who is pro-choice – told InsiderNJ. “You elect me to run your government, not your life. I’m an Eisenhower Republican, and that is not at all disrespectful of those in the GOP who think differently.”
But that’s not good enough for the likes of former Bogota Mayor Steve Lonegan, past head of the New Jersey chapter of Americans for Prosperity, who can’t see Ciattarelli. For him it boils down to one issue: abortion.
“I have one fundamental rule of thumb,” movement conservative Lonegan, who ran unsuccessfully for governor against Chris Christie in the 2009 party primary, told InsiderNJ. “I will never support a candidate who’s not pro life.”
That rules out both Ciattarelli and Guadagno.
But Lonegan said he has other issues.
“Jack’s tax plan is a disaster. Guadagno’s tax plan is equally bad,” he said. “That circuit breaker plan she’s got – no words can describe how bad it is. She might as well put up a sign and say’ millionaires get out of here.’ That’s our tax base. Both these characters don’t get it. I think we’re heading toward one-party rule. I don’t think you can win without galvanizing your Republican base and I don’t know if Tom Kean and Jon Bramnick have the courage to lead the party.”
Longtime allies Lonegan and state Senator Mike Doherty (R-23) have tousled behind the scenes about the gubernatorial election. While the movement conservative senator agrees with Lonegan on fundamental Republican issues, he also likes the fact that Ciattarelli argues his own key issue: school funding fairness. To date, however, it’s not been enough to budge Doherty off the ledge into a swan dive into Ciattarelli’s arms.
His slate mate, Assemblyman John DiMaio (R-23) of Hackettstown, enthusiastically embraces the assemblyman.
DiMaio’s a conservative – but also a pragmatist.
“I don’t agree with every position, but this election is far too important,” the assemblyman said. “This election is about whether we’re going back to Corzine control – and lets face it, [Phil] Murphy is close to Corzine and Democrats ran Corzine over. If we lose veto power, I don’t know what’s going to be the future of our state. Chris Christie’s vetoes have been critical, and if we lose that, I think we’re doomed. Jack’s conservatism starts with finance. Jack has built a business. He has a master’s degree in business administration. We need someone who knows how to run a business; someone who will have to work with both sides of the aisle . We don’t agree on abortion.”
Former Assemblyman Guy Gregg, a Marine and avowed mountain man conservative – likewise believes Ciattarelli is the best option.
“I know Kim and I know Jack, and when we last spoke, at that point I was in the middle,” Gregg told InsiderNJ. “Quite frankly, no one had talked to me but I’ve watched and I remember what Senator Bob Littel told me. ‘Politics is about taking sides.’ That quote’s not quite as colorful as ‘the only thing you find in the middle of the road is dead animals and yellow lines,’ but I have lived by it in politics.
“I think Jack clearly is more conservative than Kim, and he presents a better product against Mr. Murphy. Kim being the LG is a real liability given the unpopularity of Chris Christie. The independence of Jack counts for a lot. And he’s conservative on many issues. The recent mailer I got from his campaign presents the aggressive opinion he has on sanctuary cities. If you follow Democrats, they back a sanctuary state. Look, Jack is also a strong 2nd Amendment supporter. Among all the categories of what we say conservatism is, there are guns and abortion. I’m a pro life person but I have to be realistic, and I don’t think the governor’s race is going to be about that.”
Gregg acknowledges, though, that western New Jersey – with three weeks remaining before Election Day on June 6th – is not yet engaged in the contest. “What I hear is dead silence,” he said.
Another hurdle Ciattarelli must get over is his own separation from President Donald J. Trump.
“Trump has brought a new group of people to politics,” said DiMaio.
But Ciattarelli – like Guadagno – refused to support Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign with any vigor.
Still, Matt Hale, professor of political science at Seton Hall University, said he doubts the so-called “Lonegan winf of the party” will ultimately matter much in this cycle.
“We haven’t talked about choice in this election cycle so that takes that issue of the table,” Hale said. “I don’t think the Lonegan wing of the party is anything more than 12 guys sitting around their computers up in Sussex County. The nature of what Republicans are in New Jersey is different from what it is in Nebraska.”
One thing most agree on is a sense of a loss of momentum on the Guadagno side and gaining momentum with Ciattarelli.
The Kim alternative is not pro life and not ideologically conservative on most red meat issue, but he’s good on guns and the regional greenhouse gas initiative (which Guadagno supports and Ciattarelli opposes) for harder right wing occupants of the GOP. “If Kim wins,” one Republican, speaking on condition of anonymity, told InsidernJ, “it will be all the energy of a Doug Forrester campaign all over again, plus Murphy hammering the crap out of her on Christie-related ethics issues.”