Both my readers and critics often question me as to why I am devoting so much attention and analysis to the 2025 New Jersey gubernatorial campaign. It is nearly three years away.
Yet to be successful, a New Jersey gubernatorial aspirant must begin his or her candidacy efforts early. As in the case of the election of an American president, the campaign of a New Jersey governor is a marathon.
There are two issues a successful gubernatorial candidate must resolve no later than the legislative midterm elections preceding the gubernatorial election year. The first is the selection of battleground counties in which to win county party organizational endorsements. The second is the formulation of a winning message.
In the forthcoming 2025 Republican gubernatorial campaign, there are presently two apparent candidates: 1) former Assemblyman and 2021 GOP gubernatorial nominee Jack Ciattarelli; and 2) New Jersey 101.5 Talk Show host Bill Spadea. It is also possible that GOP State Senators Jon Bramnick and Holly Schepisi will also enter the race after the 2023 legislative elections, where both are standing for reelection.
The base of Ciattarelli’s candidacy is composed largely of rank-and-file GOP voters, while the Spadea base is the MAGA vote. These two candidates are already engaged in the first battleground of the 2025 GOP campaign, to wit, the contest for the Ocean County GOP party organization line in the 2025 primary. I am currently developing a column on this continuing political clash.
In terms of the formulation of an effective message, however, Ciattarelli is crafting a significant advantage over Spadea. The Ciattarelli message is unquestionably non-dystopian. The Spadea message, in terms of substance, tone, and temperature is dystopian on steroids.
There is no more currently politically damaging a characterization of a GOP message, even among rank-and-file Republicans, as the label of “dystopian.” The dictionary definition of “dystopian”relates to an imagined world or society in which people lead wretched, dehumanized, or fearful lives.
In a political context, the word “dystopian” refers to the depiction of the nation as locked in an existential battle, where the stark combat lines denote not just policy disagreements but warring camps of saviors vs. villains, and where political opponents are regularly demonized. A classic example is the recent depiction of Democratic governance by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis as “dystopia, where people’s rights were curtailed and their livelihoods were destroyed.” The term “dystopian” also refers to the dark, apocalyptic tone and heated temperature that accompanies the substance of the dystopian rhetoric.
Dystopian beliefs and rhetoric constitute an essential core characteristic of Magaworld. This explains the almost obsessively dystopian rhetoric of the two leading GOP presidential candidates, DeSantis and former President Donald Trump. It is a dramatic departure from the optimistic rhetorical style of Ronald Reagan, who almost never demonized his political adversaries but instead warmly, but regretfully depicted them as well-meaning individuals who just failed to understand the error of their ways.
Recently in Republican national elected leadership and pundit circles, there has been a growing realization that dystopian rhetorical style has been a prime cause of the Republican failures in the Presidential election of 2020 and the Congressional elections of 2018, 2020, and 2022. Many Republican consultants are advocating that GOP candidates depart from the dark, dystopian world of Donald Trump and enter into the sunshine, utopian universe of Ronald Reagan. A recent column of Ashley Parker in the Washington Post described the growing prevalence of this view.
In New Jersey, Jack Ciattarelli is a quintessential example of Reaganesque style, while Bill Spadea is a virtual boilerplate for dystopian candidates. The archetypal example of Spadea dystopia is his tweet from November, 2020 issued after New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy and his family were rudely accosted at a New Jersey restaurant:
Time for civility is over. Corrupt bastard @GovMurphy is crushing our economic, religious, and civil liberties. He should be confronted at every turn. Tell him what you really think. He has no regard for your family, why should you have any regard for his? No justice. No peace.
This tweet was viewed by the New Jersey media and political community as being highly offensive. Yet Spadea has never retracted it.
In truth, Spadea is politically trapped by his own gubernatorial campaign strategy when it comes to retracting this tweet, which is a serious skeleton in his political closet. He has one and only one path to the GOP 2025 gubernatorial nomination: the capture of the Ocean County GOP ballot line and endorsement, plus the virtual unanimous support of Jersey Magaworld. If Spadea were to retract and apologize for this tweet, his Magaworld support would collapse overnight, and his campaign would become nonviable.
Yet the New Jersey Republican Right, in the event of the collapse of the Spadea candidacy, could have a far more effective and attractive option if Senator Michael Testa, Jr. decides to enter the GOP 2025 gubernatorial primary. The contrast between Spadea and Testa could not be more clear. Spadea is an avatar of Trumpist dystopian politics, while Testa is the ultimate Reaganesque nondistopian candidate. Throughout his political career, Testa has been a model of political civility, standing as a direct refutation of the infamous anti-Murphy Spadea tweet.
Since Testa is not dystopian, he does not generate the passions that Spadea arouses in the Jersey Magaworld. The South Jersey Senator, however, is unmistakably a cultural warrior, albeit a happy cultural warrior.
Testa certainly is acceptable to Jersey Magaworld in the event of Spadea’s withdrawal from the campaign. Unlike Spadea, Testa could also attract independent voters in the general election.
A Testa Reaganesque campaign for governor would be far more competitive with Jack Ciattarelli than the Spadea Trumpian effort.
If the Ciattarelli campaign is actively working to undermine the Spadea candidacy, a word of cautious advice to them is in order: Be careful what you wish for – you may get it.
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.