Bob Hugin wanted to run New Jersey’s Republican Party last year, but he lost a close vote to Michael Lavery.
Now, he has the job after being blessed by the party’s gubernatorial candidate, Jack Ciattarelli.
Ciattarelli called Hugin “the best possible leader for the NJGOP at this time.”
That may be.
But accolades aside, Hugin faces some pretty tough challenges.
Let’s start with arithmetic, an important part of politics to be sure.
There are now almost 1.1 million more registered Democrats in the state than Republicans. Just three years ago when Hugin unsuccessfully ran for the U.S. Senate, the gap was 900,000.
Sure, there are more than 2 million unaffiliated voters, some of whom can be won over. But 1.1 million is a pretty big spread.
Hugin knows the numbers, but he said they don’t tell the whole story.
For one thing, he said Republican registration has been slowly inching up in recent months.
More broadly, Hugin said Phil Murphy is vulnerable for two reasons.
One is because he is pushing the state too far left.
“The state’s values are not progressive, socialist,” Hugin said in a phone conversation today.
The Murphy camp, obviously, would counter that the governor, who made millions on Wall Street, is a strange kind of socialist. But this will continue to be a Republican talking point.
Then there’s the pandemic.
Hugin and other Republicans say Murphy’s “lockdown” was an overreach and proof of his desire for autocratic control. For example, Hugin said there was no good reason to keep schools closed for in-person instruction for as long as they were.
It’s also worthwhile to look at the current GOP landscape.
Ciattarelli easily won the June primary. That’s the good news.
But he failed to get 50 percent of the vote, although he came close.
Most of the rest of the vote – a tally of almost 150,000 – went to the two candidates who proclaimed loyalty to Donald Trump – Phil Rizzo and Hirsh Singh.
What will that group do in November?
Vote for Ciattarelli or vote not at all?
Hugin predicted in a recent interview with Michael Aron of NJ-PBS that he expects them to back Ciattarelli.
He reasoned that Ciattarelli’s message of liberty and freedom – presumably from pandemic regulations – will resonate with the Trump crowd.
Hugin expanded on that theme in our phone chat, saying that Murphy and President Biden are “poster boys” for the type of “woke,” left-wing culture most New Jersey residents dislike. The implication was that such anti-Murphy sentiments will sooth any Republican wounds from the primary.
There have been some signs of GOP unity.
Rizzo attended a recent “unity breakfast” of the Morris County Republican Committee where Ciattarelli was the guest speaker.
Ciattarelli mentioned at the breakfast that he received an apology from Singh after a campaign flap between Ciattarelli’s wife, Melinda, and Singh’s campaign chair, King Penna.
This Youtube moment occurred during the candidates’ radio debate and featured Penna aggressively questioning Melinda Ciattarelli about her adult children voting from the family home.
As for a more conventional political point, Hugin said in the Aron interview that, “It’s starting to feel a lot like ’93. We’re starting to get that little ground fire.”
That remains to be seen.
In 1993, Republican Christie Whitman ousted incumbent Democrat James Florio.
Florio was running after approving tax increases of $2.8 billion, which fueled statewide anger.
Republicans can say Murphy went too far with his pandemic response, but it seems hard to compare what happened in the last year to the massive tax increases of 1993.
Hugin admits Ciattarelli has an uphill battle, but says the GOP candidate is a great campaigner and a likeable fellow.
So Hugin remains an optimist, saying, “Jack has a road to victory.”