Governor 2025: Underway in the GOP Underground

Jack and Melinda Ciattarelli

Jack Ciattarelli’s near toppling of Phil Murphy last year brought New Jersey Republicans back from the catacombs of the Trump years; well, with the exception of South Jersey, where they used the otherwise New Jersey-garlic and heart-stake-summoning presidency of The Donald to create a deep red base.

Perhaps it is no accident that when it comes to continuing talks about the 2025 Republican Primary for

Testa
Testa

Governor, the name of state Senator Mike Testa (R-1) circulates with regularity.

Testa occupied the spearpoint of a Republican rebellion in South Jersey. As much of the rest of the state ran in horror from Trump, Testa stepped forward as a wholly Trump ratifying star-in-the-making, who overthrew a war hero Democrat on the strength of charisma, work ethic, conservative views, and push back down there against the progressive policies of Governor Murphy. Then he co-chaired Trump’s reelection campaign.

Never a big Trump fan (even though Democrats lassoed him to a Stop the Steal Rally appearance and all but sank his chances of winning) Ciattarelli remains the favorite for the next nomination – and the general election favorite, in the aftermath of Democrats’ running rampant during there Trump era, gorging themselves on new frontiers of power, and untethered now by those sterner forces overcome by the rise of Republicans in South Jersey, namely the South Jersey Democratic Organization, significantly weakened over the past half decade.

But there are others among the Republican ranks, Testa among them, who have friends in the party who see him or others as potential alternatives to the former GP assemblyman from Hillsborough, who already announced his third candidacy for governor following a heartbreaking three-point 2021 loss to Murphy. For every Ciattarelli ally who asserts that Jack brought considerable Bob Franks-like powers to his near withering of Murphy, someone else out there in GOP world says, “Jack didn’t do this enough,” “or that enough,” “didn’t take Murphy to the woodshed,” or espouse sufficiently conservative values to galvanize the rank and file, or kneel dutifully at the altar of Trump with any kind of real show of fealty.

Other names besides Testa?

Bill Spadea, the 101.5 FM talk show host has amped up his connectivity to party organizations, leading numerous sources in the GOP to conclude that he will run for governor; or that’s already running. Remember, before he became a radio host, the fierce Trump backer ran for Congress against Rush Holt and sought an LD16 Assembly seat, losing to Donna Simon in Hillsborough. The Marine Corps veteran may still fancy himself in elected office.

Doug Steinhardt, the former Republican chairman who bowed out of his already declared gubernatorial candidacy after the Jan. 6th desecration, is said to still be curious about a statewide run.  Steinhardt would step on Testa, or Testa on Steinhardt, depending on your favored candidate; their political ties and views supposedly too similar for each to abide the other in a race.

Certainly, an animated Spadea would complicate the lane, too.

The name of Bob Hugin, the sitting state GOP chairman who ran against Bob Menendez in 2018,  also

Hugin and Ciattarelli

gets kicked around, mostly on the strength of his capacity to drop $50 million (or any astronomical sum of his choosing) into a statewide contest. If Testa and Steinhardt and Spadea occupy the rightward reaches of the party, Hugin irritated then-President Trump when he tried to distance himself from the corrosive chief executive.

He could complicate life for Ciattarelli in particular.

Other names churn, among them U.S. Rep. Jeff Van Drew (R-2), maybe inflated wishfully by northern antagonists in an attempt to keep Testa off balance; and Bridgewater Mayor Matt Moench, an up-and-comer in the party.

Steinhardt and Moench in Bridgewater.
Steinhardt and Moench in Bridgewater

Then there’s state Senator Holly Schepisi (R-39), a Jack-wing-of-the-party leader who would probably – just as Spadea-Testa-Steinhardt might find themselves mangled, find herself irreparably entangled with Ciattarelli’s moderate base.

Now, again, if Pelosi v. AOC Democrats have some healing to do, Republicans too must confront deep fracturing in their party. Long dominated by Chris Christie, the NJGOP went in another direction when they embraced Ciattarelli as a moderate alternative to the national-roiling Trump.

Schepisi
Schepisi

Following the midterm election cycle, look for Christie to again run for president. His 2016 bid ended with a whimper, not a bang, and a subsequent chest-first endorsement of Trump that he’s been trying to walk back ever since, or at least since Jan. 6th, 2021. Christie’s continuing national ambitions will presumably keep him focused on 2024 – not the already developing statewide nuances of 2025, as Republicans go to war with themselves (the Jack wing versus the Spadea wing); just as Democrats will have to sort out the Mikie Sherrill wing (or the LeRoy Jones wing) from the Ras Baraka wing.

As he tries to hold onto the gains he made last year, sources say Ciattarelli takes zero for granted. Since Election Day, he continues to keep working. He is everywhere. In the words of one ally, “Nobody’s going to work harder than Jack.” Keep in mind, too, that more Republican success in the midterm election – expected as a payback to President Joe Biden – will unleash new wells of individual aspiration and certainly, as 2021 fades, supplanted by the dramas of 2022, new powers of self congratulation among those who begin to believe they – not Ciattarelli – should mount a more rightward tilting (or moneyed, or new-fangled, or more aggressive) campaign against time-haggard Democrats, who once – at the height of the Trump era – looked absolutely invincible in New Jersey.

Who Should Republicans Nominate to Succeed Murphy?

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