As primary election day approaches, I continue to have the same response to questions regarding the outcome of the New Jersey Republican Gubernatorial Primary: I find the outcome of this race most difficult to predict, and I will not hazard a guess.
The recently published Stockton Poll reports a 37-18 lead for Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno over Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli. The Stockton Poll is a reputable poll, and I do not attempt to discredit the competency of the personnel involved.
Yet there is an essential futility in attempting to poll a gubernatorial primary of this nature. This poll surveyed Republicans who voted in the 2016 presidential primary. The turnout in this Republican gubernatorial primary is likely to be far less, given the emotional state of a Republican electorate depressed about the diminishing possibility of the GOP retaining control of the governorship. Furthermore, the turnout in the 2017 GOP primary, as compared with 2016 is likely to consist of a larger percentage of senior citizen voters. Therefore, it is very difficult to identify a subset of registered voters as “likely voters” in this primary. A compounding factor in the identification of likely voters in this campaign is the large number of undecideds. Are they truly up for grabs or just likely not to vote?
So one must go to other factors in attempting to predict a GOP gubernatorial primary winner. Successful campaigns are a product of the three basic components of money, message, and organization. Kim Guadagno has a definite monetary edge, and her status as lieutenant governor gave her a head start in the battle for county organizations and county lines, although Ciattarelli captured a surprising number of seven. Guadagno’s organizational advantage is somewhat mitigated, due to 1) the greater grassroots enthusiasm for Jack; and 2) his superior ground game.
When it comes to message, however, Ciattarelli has a major advantage. The compelling nature of his message is why Jack Ciattarelli matters, not only in this campaign but in the ensuing years for the New Jersey GOP. The Ciattarelli message has two cogent components, one essentially political and the other a matter of basic governmental policy.
The first component is the fact that the Chris Christie albatross weighs heavily on anybody who politically or governmentally associated with him over the past eight years. The Christie record of ethical and policy misfeasance and malfeasance makes his lieutenant governor, Kim Guadagno unelectable this November, regardless of her attempts to distance herself from him. Against Kim Guadagno, Phil Murphy is certain to win a landslide similar to that of Jim Florio when he trounced Jim Courter in 1989. Such a landslide will have devastating effects on New Jersey Republicans at the county and municipal levels as well.
More than any other Republican New Jersey state legislator over the past eight years, Jack Ciattarelli has not hesitated to call Chris Christie to account on ethical transgressions, foolhardy policy, and governmental maladministration. The nomination of Jack Ciattarelli would constitute a necessary first step in the NJGOP cleansing itself of the Christie stigma and beginning anew. Accordingly, Ciattarelli has been able to communicate to Republican primary voters the message that he, unlike Guadagno, could run a competitive campaign against Phil Murphy.
The second compelling component of the Ciattarelli message is the long avoided yet inevitable truth about property tax in the Garden State: You cannot reduce the grossly excessive property taxes on suburban middle class New Jersey without a major restructuring of the state education funding formula, reallocating aid from overfunded urban districts to aid-starved middle class suburban districts.
The power of the Ciattarelli education aid message has now set the agenda for both political parties for the next decade. It has encouraged suburban Democratic legislators to embrace alternative funding formulas that will provide more aid for their districts. Even Guadagno, who began her campaign with another variant of the shopworn “increase rebates” pledge that has been part of campaigns for the past three decades, was forced to pledge to support a new funding formula.
I interviewed Jack Ciattarelli recently in Somerville, and I was struck by three aspects of his character. First, he is the least poll driven candidate for governor I have seen in either party over the last two decades. Second, he is not easily ideologically pigeonholed. Both these characteristics are demonstrated by his pro-choice position on abortion and his willingness to consider an increase in the millionaire’s tax if the Legislature would enact a phase-out of the New Jersey corporate business tax and the elimination of the state inheritance tax.
It must also be said that Guadagno has faced major credibility problems in her efforts to define Jack Ciattarelli as a liberal, given her support for ObamaCare, the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, with its cap and trade aspect, and offshore windmills.
The final unique aspect of Jack Ciattarelli as political player is his remarkably refreshing candor. This characteristic became evident when I asked him how he would deal with the scorching criticism he would receive from urban Democrats on his school funding formula if he wins the primary. He was direct in his reply – he made it clear to me that he would hold public meetings in urban areas and stress the unfairness of a resident of Jersey City paying less property tax on a house valued at $800,000 than a resident of Morris County would pay on a $400,000 house.
Kim Guadagno remains the favorite of the conventional wisdom crowd to win the GOP gubernatorial nomination on Tuesday. Every Democrat with whom I speak hopes so. When you observe the Ciattarelli campaign and hear his message, as I have, you become convinced that he is destined to be elected as governor some day, whether in 2017 or 2021. He matters because of the power of his message. That is why I would not be shocked if he wins the primary on Tuesday.
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 under former New Jersey Governor Christie Whitman.