Labor Day is the typical campaign kick-off day for New Jersey gubernatorial candidates. At this campaign milestone, the recent Monmouth Poll shows Republican candidate Jack Ciattarelli trailing incumbent Democratic Governor Phil Murphy by 16 points.
Against a popular governor like Phil Murphy, such a margin is basically prohibitive. Yet on top of this, Jack Ciattarelli is sinking in two quagmires, either of which dooms his campaign, unless he can miraculously escape both.
The quagmires are 1) Ciattarelli’s use of the seven words, “Children are not vulnerable to this virus”, hereinafter referred to as the “seven words;” and 2) the US Supreme Court non-decision on the Texas abortion statute, which vitiated Roe v. Wade and leaves a woman’s right to abortion choice unprotected in New Jersey.
The inability of Ciattarelli to emerge from either quagmire has the same basic cause. Ciattarelli is running a campaign of abject fealty to Trump and Trumpism.
The anti-mask and anti-abortion choice movements are both critical Trump constituencies. Ciattarelli has pledged allegiance to both. His utterance of the seven words was made in the context of his making a fervent appeal to the anti-mask movement. Neither movement will give Ciattarielli the “wiggle room” he needs to avoid election disaster due to his association with both.
Covid started out as the major issue in the campaign. Abortion choice was not even a minor campaign issue until the Supreme Court issued its non-decision last week allowing the new Texas statute to remain in full force and effect.
This new Texas law, for all practical purposes, prohibits all abortions and established a vigilante justice system of enforcement of the prohibition by private individuals. And damages can be assessed against all those who assist a woman in obtaining an abortion, even against counselors of the woman in question. The Texas MAGA anti-abortion crowd is now giddy with joy at the prospect of becoming anti-abortion bounty hunters.
The issues of the mask mandates and abortion choice are now the two major issues in the New Jersey gubernatorial campaign, overriding by far anything else. Property taxes normally would be a major concern of voters, but these two issues by far now supersede property tax as “voting issues.”
Ciattarelli’s utterance of the seven words constituted the worst campaign gaffe since the then incumbent President Gerald Ford uttered the words, “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe,” in his 1976 second debate with the ultimately victorious candidate, Jimmy Carter. Both the Ciattarelli and Ford statements would have been laughably false if they hadn’t involved life and death matters.
The gross falsity of Ciattarelli’s seven words has been conclusively proven by the rising rates for hospitalization of children due to Covid, as reported this week by the federal Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
The seven words appear to constitute at best either scientific ignorance on Ciattarelli’s part or at worst, a blatant attempt at misinformation by him, all in an effort to attract and defend the anti-mask voters.
And politically, his effort at catering to the anti-mask crowd has been a disaster. The Monmouth Poll in late August reported that over two-thirds of parents favored a mandate requiring that students, teachers, and staff in New Jersey’s public schools wear the mask.
The task for the Murphy campaign is easy. All they have to do is play this video of Ciattarelli uttering the seven words in at least one televised commercial a day.
If Ciattarelli continues to maintain his anti-mask position and adhere to his seven words, this video will cause the great majority of New Jersey parents to regard him at best as willfully ignorant of medical science or at worst, as a public health menace. If he changes his position, the Republican troglodyte Trumpist base voters will desert him in droves.
Ciattarelli’s Covid conundrum is a quagmire of his own making. His abortion dilemma resulting from the Supreme Court non-decision is not totally a result of previous missteps on his part. The following is a link to a summary of the new Texas law:
The non-decision of the Supreme Court on this matter has left Ciattarelli politically between the political rock and the hard place. The Supreme Court non-decision allowing Texas to effectively prohibit all abortions now serves as a precedent for every state in the union to enact similar legislation. In the words of Steven Schwinn, a constitutional law professor at the University of Illinois Chicago, “essentially, the Supreme Court has now given other states a roadmap for circumscribing Roe vs. Wade.”
The Supreme Court’s refusal to grant a preliminary injunction or stay restraining enforcement of the new Texas law was a clever (some would say diabolical) political way of the anti-abortion judges on the High Court vitiating Roe v. Wade and making it inoperative without explicitly reversing it.
The Supreme Court did leave open the possibility of issuing a permanent injunction enjoining enforcement of the new Texas statute after a plenary hearing on its constitutionality. The initial decision of the Court on last week’s request for preliminary relief, however, is a clear signal that it is most unlikely that it will at any point find the new Texas law to be unconstitutional.
So in order to protect a woman’s right to reproductive freedom, the individual states have to pass legislation codifying the right of abortion choice. New Jersey has such proposed legislation in the form of the Reproductive Freedom Act (S3030/A4848).
Ciattarelli opposes this legislation on the grounds that it would permit late-term abortions. He has also stated that he would veto any legislation that permits abortions to be performed after 20 weeks, based upon his support for the “fetal pain” doctrine. While Roe v. Wade was in effect, the right to an abortion choice was protected until the 24th week of pregnancy.
Ciattarelli might be able to mitigate the damage he is suffering among women voters on this issue if he is willing at least to commit to enacting a bill codifying the right to an abortion choice up until the twentieth week of pregnancy. My guess, however, is that he may not even be willing to do that.
The New Jersey anti-abortion crowd and the MAGA mob are reveling in joy in the aftermath of the Supreme Court non-decision on the Texas abortion statute. They regard any codification of the right to abortion choice, however limited, as a treacherous sellout.
If Jack Ciattarelli supports any statutory codification of a woman’s right to abortion choice, the anti-abortion and MAGA voters will regard him as a political Brutus. He has courted these two constituencies most assiduously, and he will face massive desertion by these voters. On the other hand, if he does not support such an abortion choice codification bill, his pathetically meager 31 percent of the women’s vote, as shown by the recent Monmouth Poll, could well dwindle into the low 20s. For Jack Ciattarelli, the abortion issue has now become a classic case of pick your political poison.
Ciattarelli’s current problems with women voters on account of the abortion issue are a matter of no small irony. Prior to the Supreme Court decision on the new Texas abortion statute, he was already a candidate of toxicity among women voters. As stated above, the recent Monmouth Poll showed him trailing Murphy among women voters by an abysmal 57 to 31 percent.
In order to overcome this critical campaign disadvantage, Ciattarelli embarked on a new campaign initiative during the month of August, attempting to portray Phil Murphy as a misogynist. Jack’s campaign overall has had the most ad hominem tone of any major party New Jersey gubernatorial candidate during the past half century, and the tone of his “Murphy’s a misogynist” endeavor fully reflected this ad hominem vitriol.
My hunch is that this Ciattarelli campaign thrust has backfired badly, but I can’t say that definitively without updated poll results of women voters. Most significantly, however, the “Murphy’s a misogynist” campaign thrust is now a matter of massive irrelevancy. Abortion choice is now the overwhelming primary concern of New Jersey women voters. In this regard, the Ciattarelli campaign quagmire on this issue has become political quicksand for the GOP gubernatorial candidate.
I have written previously how the twin social issues of abortion and same sex relationships destroyed the 1989 general election campaign of Republican Jim Courter before it could get off the ground. As I have noted, these two issues, along with the Ciattarelli seven Covid words, have likewise disabled the 2021 Ciattarelli campaign.
The flash point on the abortion issue in 1989 was the US Supreme Court decision in the case of Webster v. Reproductive Health Services, which upheld a Missouri law that imposed restrictions on the use of state funds, facilities, and employees in performing, assisting with, or counseling abortions. The Supreme Court in Webster permitted states to legislate in an aspect that had previously been thought to be precluded under Roe v. Wade.
The decision was issued three days before the 1989 gubernatorial primary, and it instantly engulfed the Courter campaign in a blaze of campaign self-destruction. The present Supreme Court non- decision on the Texas abortion statute is having a similar eviscerating impact on the Ciattarelli 2021 campaign.
Indeed, the Ciattarelli 2021 campaign is now in the process of fully morphing into the Courter 1989 campaign. Jack Ciattarelli is now confronting the prospect of a similar landslide defeat in 2021. It may well be advisable for him to call Jim Courter for commiseration before Election Day.
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.