The bar stools stood near a suspended television set where the Yankees game blurred in the background of an intensified conversation about last night night’s gubernatorial debate. As luck would have it, a Democrat occupied one of those stools and a Republican the other in the vicinity of InsiderNJ.
The Democrat liked Jack Ciattarelli, but candidly had a hard time unsticking himself from the social issues and the Republican nominee’s history of chucking the occasional mindless red meat tidbit (the “sodomy” comment comes to mind) to the right wing base. He also expressed dismay over the candidate’s routine public masklessness before the Republican Primary and said – to his own mild irritation – that the race boils down to Governor Phil Murphy’s relatively competent maintenance of the pandemic.
He wants to back Jack, but really can’t, he admitted, though he added he thought Murphy backed into undercutting his own credibility (and maybe even needlessly antagonizing progressives) when he promised no new taxes.
The Republican digested the comments, as if he sensed their inevitability. Ciattarelli had to fend off then-GOP rival Doug Steinhardt when the latter threw in as a Donald Trump primary alternative. Would Ciattarelli be better off if Steinhardt hadn’t revved up? Damn right, the Republican acknowledged. Now, he has to stand on a stage and helplessly let Murphy peck away at him like a vulture at Prometheus’ liver.
Reveling a chance at frank talk, the Democrat said he wishes Ciattarelli would harp more on the economy, including unemployment. The Republican said he hears it all the time: as long as Ciattarelli stays on the message of restoring the centrality of property taxes as the key issue, members of the rival party see a way to hear the challenger if not back him.
The Democrat grinned back, as if loving the dramatic tension of restraining himself from diving wholeheartedly into the Ciattarelli camp.
“It’s the pandemic,” he said, explaining his support for Murphy.
Otherwise, he can’t see the governor, he admitted.
But again, if the Republican can keep focused on the economy, property taxes and the troubles of man street businesses, he may penetrate.
Then the friends from opposing parties found a true area of agreement.
Ciattarelli needs a little luck, to say the least, to overcome the massive voter registration of Democrats over Republicans in New Jersey.
“Look what’s happening in Washington,” said the Dem, referring to the bifurcated infrastructure and reconciliation bills and the imperiled agenda of President Joe Biden.
The Republican beamed beatifically.
“If that derails for Biden down there in time for November 2nd…” the Dem’s voice trailed off.
The Republican was still grinning.
He grabbed at the comment like the one piece of good political luck in Ciattarelli’s favor within the tractor beam of the New Jersey gubernatorial contest.
Democrats could derail in D.C. and reveal party incompetence in a way that mudslides Murphy.
The Democrat changed the subject.
What really intrigued him, he said, is redistricting.
Again, the old friends found fast agreement.
Incumbent U.S. Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-7) looks like the easy casualty, they mutually affirmed, with state Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean the Republican beneficiary and legislative Democrats poised to pick up a senate seat on the back end of state senator Mike Doherty (R-23) getting sawed out of contention by state Senator Steve Oroho (R-24).
“They already tried to get rid of Pascrell,” the Democrat said.
“And look how that turned out,” the Republican said.
It was a shared reference to the 2011 Republican redistricting map, which tried to impale U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-9) and backfired (kind of). The Dems still had to sacrifice a congressman, who turned out to be U.S. Rep. Steve Rothman (D-9).
The candid conversation returned to state politics and campaigns.
Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3) hadn’t given up on state Senator Dawn Addiego (D-8). He was still pushing hard to get her to beat challenger Assemblywoman Jean Stanfield (R-8), feverishly working the fundraising phones on the Democratic side, apparently. Was Sweeney bothered when Ciattarelli put Burlington County diehard and former state Senator Diane Allen on the ticket?
The Republican grinned deviously.
“Watch some of that money get yanked out of 8,” he said.
“LD11,” he said.
State Senator Vin Gopal (D-11) is a popular incumbent, but the national climate around those infrastructure-reconciliation bills could plunge that district into a tougher war that it would be in placid political circumstances, if such a condition exists.
Why wouldn’t Sweeney want to make sure he had LD2 nailed down before showering Gopal?
Did he already think he was in good shape in Atlantic County?
The GOP source smiled mischievously.
There was, of course, that photo of South Jersey Democratic Party power broker George Norcross III sitting with Republican Atlantic County Executive Denny Levinson leaked to Harry Hurley.
Was former Assemblyman Vince Polistina (R-2) already a casualty in that race with Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo (D-2) for the vacant senate seat?
It was possible certainly for Sweeney to fight on several fronts, and weigh the advantages of immersion in each theater against late polling: in LD2, LD8 and LD11 – but those seemed like the most intense areas of interest, probably in that order. Those contests always lurked with urgency under the hood of Murphy versus Ciattarelli.
The conversation went deeper into the night, and although the game continued on the screen in the background, with a wildcard playoff berth at stake, no one wondered about that score with a season of New Jersey politics unsettled. The better metaphor for the cycle, all the undercurrents notwithstanding, remained the sport of the governor’s choice, soccer – and he was still up at least 1-0 over Ciattarelli, who was still very visibly active on the field of play.
- Atlantic County
- Bill Pascrell
- Burlington County
- Dawn Addiego
- Denny Levinson
- Diane Allen
- George Norcross
- Harry Hurley
- Jack Ciattarelli
- Jean Stanfield
- Joe Biden
- Mike Doherty
- Phil Murphy
- Steve Oroho
- Steve Rothman
- Steve Sweeney
- Tom Kean
- Tom Malinowski
- Vin Gopal
- Vince Mazzeo
- Vince Polistina
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