Impaired by President Donald J. Trump yet buoyed by the twin life rafts, in their estimation, of Governor Phil Murphy and U.S. Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ), New Jersey Republicans on Saturday convened in Atlantic City for a summit organized by Republican State Party Chairman Doug Steinhardt.
Running against Menendez and willing to throw $40 million into the race, retired pharma executive Bob Hugin made the statewide case for his fellow Republicans.
“We need a senator we can be proud of,” said Hugin, a swipe at a Democratic incumbent who struggled for two years under the weight of a corruption trial that finally hung a jury last year, causing the federal government to throw out the charges.
“Republicans are united,” Middlesex GOP Chairman Lucille Panos told InsiderNJ.
At least two fiercely developing GOP primaries this year suggest otherwise, as a fight in CD11 underscores longstanding insider rivalries, while a fight in CD2 defines the larger battle going in the GOP between Trump loyalists on the one hand and law and order loyalists on the other.
But with Murphy – who last month unveiled a $37.4 billion budget that has Trenton Democrats fighting each other – the other main target in Atlantic City, early 2021 optics abounded.
Former Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli (R-16) spoke at the cocktail hour, amplifying at a statewide event a speech he delivered at individual Lincoln Day dinners earlier this year.
Ciattarelli has already said he wants to run against Murphy.
Monmouth County Sherriff (and Monmouth GOP Chairman) Shaun Golden also continued to create buzz.
He wants to run, too.
And Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean (R-21) and Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick (R-21) (pictured, above) gave remarks at the dinner.
Their names always circulate as statewide options.
Moderates Ciattarelli and Bramnick to date have most forcefully expressed anti-Trump sentiments, Bramnick in particular.
Of note, former Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno, the 2017 Republican nominee for Governor, did not address the summit.
There was a rock concert going on next door, which at times threatened the acoustics of the occasion, and Democrats here in a federal election year have designs on taking advantage of Trump’s unpopularity in New Jersey, and look to grab, at the very least, the seats of retiring U.S. Reps. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-11) and U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R-2) and of sitting U.S. Rep. Leonard Lance (R-7).
But even as Trump invests the atmosphere with politically sulfuric storylines, which presumably contributed to the retirement announcement earlier this week of Speaker Paul Ryan amid predictions of Republicans losing the U.S. House of Representatives, GOP leaders kept their focus on Menendez and Murphy.
“Billion dollar Phil wants to give free tuition to students,” Bramnick told the crowd. “Murphy’s done in 21.”
The Assembly Republican Leader said he knows Democrats will try to twist his message into an anti-college student tirade. But he explained.
“The Governor wants free tuition,” Bramnick said. “But why shouldn’t the student have some skin in the game? Why not work at least part time? Governor Murphy wants to take money out of your pocket and give it to someone else. I’m against that; against a 100% tuition-free policy, because you’re not giving the student skin in the game.
“Doug Steinhardt did a good job bringing people to Atlantic City,” he added, noting the organizing efforts of the state party chairman. “The focus is going to be on the extreme policies of Phil Murphy. Even [Senate President] Steve Sweeney thinks Phil Murphy’s agenda is extreme. This was a real kick-off.”
Republicans at the summit have a good vibe about Hugin, who will inject millions of negative money against Menendez, which GOP sources say could make it about a four or five point race, which fails to ultimately succeed in giving an extra U.S. Senate vote to Trump.At the moment, Menendez has a 21-point lead, according to last week’s Monmouth University Poll, and posted a strong fundraising quarter.
Among the party’s up-and-comers who took the stage, CD2 hopeful Hirsh Singh reminded the audience that the Republican Party fought for abolition of slavery and for passage of the Civil Rights Act.
“As a first generation Indian-American blessed to have parents who chose to live in America and gave me the gift of growing up in Atlantic County, I know firsthand how anyone can achieve the American Dream if they are given the right environment to thrive and if they work hard,” Singh said.