The candidates for New Jersey governor this coming November are now, for all practical purposes established. Republican former Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli will face off against incumbent Democratic Governor Phil Murphy. And at this point, the likelihood of a Murphy landslide hangs heavy over Jack Ciattarelli like a thick vapor in the political atmosphere.
Murphy would be a heavy favorite to win this election even if there was no substantial political negative factor impacting Jack Ciattarelli. The governor has far exceeded the expectations of the Trenton chattering class and has been a highly successful governor, both governmentally and politically. https://www.insidernj.com/campaign-kickoff-five-factors-shaping-nj-governors-race-2021/
But there is additionally a huge negative political factor impacting Ciattarelli, namely, the continuing destruction of the Republican brand in the Garden State. And the cause of that brand destruction is, unequivocally, Donald Trump.
When I speak of political brand destruction, I am describing the total decline of public approval of not only a political party but also the damage done to a candidate who utilizes the party’s name and election line.
There have been landslide gubernatorial elections in New Jersey due to factors other than party brand destruction, such as the popularity or unpopularity of incumbent governors and/or their challengers. With party brand destruction in gubernatorial races, however, there is also devastating down ballot damage.
The classic case of party brand destruction associated with a gubernatorial race was the 1973 gubernatorial contest between the victor, Essex County Prosecutor Democrat Brendan Byrne and the vanquished Republican, Congressman Charlie Sandman of Cape May County. The Watergate scandal that brought down the presidency of Richard Nixon resulted in the landslide victory of Byrne, in which he won 66.7 per cent of the popular vote, carrying every county except Cape May, and the Democrats gaining control of both houses of the legislature by overwhelming margins, the Senate by 29-10-1 and the Assembly by 66-14. And the brand damage continued into 1974, in which the NJGOP lost four Congressional seats, including Sandman’s.
Sandman was a conservative Republican who defeated incumbent Governor William T. Cahill in the 1973 New Jersey Republican gubernatorial primary. He was not without a pragmatic streak: he had endorsed Nelson Rockefeller over Richard Nixon for the GOP presidential nomination in 1968.
After Nixon was elected, Sandman became one of his key loyal Congressional allies. He remained totally loyal to Nixon throughout the 1973 gubernatorial campaign and thereafter, down through the House Judiciary Committee hearings on Watergate in the summer of 1974, in which Sandman distinguished himself as one of Nixon’s fiercest defenders. He finally called for Nixon’s resignation after the revelation of the “smoking gun” tapes immediately before the then president departed office in August, 1974.
It was never in the cards for Sandman to defeat Byrne. He was too conservative for New Jersey, and the Watergate brand damage to the NJGOP made his gubernatorial victory impossible. The denouement of the Sandman campaign was the Saturday Night Massacre of October 20, 1973 in which Nixon fired Special Watergate Prosecutor Archibald Cox, destroying any remaining faint hopes for a Sandman upset victory.
It is important for the Ciattarelli campaign to study the 1973 gubernatorial race, for the odds increase every day that he will meet the same outcome as Sandman in 1973.
And Jack Ciattarelli, by his reaction to the Trumpian cancer, particularly his refusal to repudiate Trump after increasing Trump outrages such as his incitement of the January 6 insurrection in Washington, has become a model of political timidity, without leadership credibility. The Trumpians politically intimidate Ciattarelli in the same fashion that Sonny Liston intimidated Floyd Patterson.
Four years ago, in the Republican gubernatorial primary, I developed a rather high opinion of Jack Ciattarelli. In his uphill and ultimately unsuccessful effort to defeat the nominee, the then Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno, Jack demonstrated independent thinking and programmatic ingenuity in dealing with the state’s most difficult issues. And Ciattarelli explicitly and emphatically repudiated Trump, describing him as unfit for the White House, “a charlatan who is out of step with the Party of Lincoln and is embarrassing the nation.”
After that primary, anti-Trump center-right Republicans looked forward to the 2021 campaign, in which Jack would be the frontrunner. It was, however, a different Ciattarelli who showed up this time.
For Campaign 2021, Jack obviously felt that he could not win the GOP primary if he maintained his anti-Trump position. Accordingly, he initially unenthusiastically endorsed Trump for reelection, while remaining silent on individual Trump issues.
This Ciattarelli silence, however soon evolved into an appalling acquiescence in almost any Trumpian abuse of power. He attended a “Stop the Steal” rally, dedicated to the false proposition that the election had been stolen from Trump, and while Jack did not speak about the Trump election theft claims, his presence at the rally was a tacit endorsement of its fraudulent agenda.
Yet nothing was more offensive regarding Trump than Ciattarelli’s absolute refusal to ascribe primary responsibility to the Donald for the insurrectionary violence that broke out on Capitol Hill on January 6. Jack continued to engage in the appalling sophistry of blaming “both sides”, while maintaining that Trump was “good for America.”
There is a major difference between Sandman’s defense of Nixon’s law violations in 1973-1974 and Ciattarelli’s acquiescence in Trump’s authoritarianism in 2020-2021. In the case of Sandman, he was defending Nixon as a matter of principle and thus demonstrating political courage. In the case of Trump in 2021, Ciattarelli has demonstrated a pathetic desire to ingratiate himself with the MAGA mob, thus exhibiting political cowardice.
If I were a Las Vegas oddsmaker, I would give 10-1 odds against Jack Ciattarelli winning this election. In short, he and the NJGOP have as much chance of winning in the November gubernatorial and legislative elections as I have of becoming the understudy and acting double for Jamie Dornan. The fate of Jack Ciattarelli and the NJGOP in 2021 is likely to be the same as the outcome for Charlie Sandman and the NJGOP in 1973.
Alan 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.