On the day after Election 2017, I had a number of phone conversations regarding prospects going forward. The consensus was that the man to watch was Jack Ciattarelli, and that the newly elected governor, Phil Murphy, was likely to have a limited political life.
The Republican candidate for governor, the then Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno had run a competent and respectable campaign, but the twin albatrosses of Chris Christie and Donald Trump had doomed her to defeat. By contrast, her primary opponent, Jack Ciattarelli was a magnetic personality who had run a courageous and exciting issue innovative primary in which he explicitly repudiated Donald Trump.
The consensus was that Phil Murphy would be a one term Jon Corzine, an out-of-touch politically unskilled Wall Street refugee who would be destroyed by the political power players in the Democratic Party establishment. All he had going for him was money.
Fast forward to the last few days. Check out the Rutgers-Eagleton Poll, whose reputation has been vastly enhanced under the directorship of Ashley Koning. First, review the poll’s current overall approval ratings on Phil Murphy, released Monday.
Then, review the poll’s initial results of the Murphy- Ciattarelli matchup.
The conclusion of any objective review is inescapable. Barring a totally unforeseen personal or ethical scandal or a gross mishandling of a major crisis, Phil Murphy, who currently leads Jack Ciattarelli by an astounding 26-point margin, 52 to 26 points, is headed for a landslide victory.
This likelihood is enhanced by the strengths of Murphy and the weaknesses of Ciattarelli revealed in the polls.
Murphy has a remarkably high job approval percentage for a fourth year governor of 55 percent. The likability factor works strongly in Murphy’s behalf; his personal approval percentage is eleven points higher than his disapproval, 47 to 36.
By contrast, despite campaigning up and down the state for four years, Ciattarelli is the candidate nobody knows. An astonishingly high 52 percent do not know who he is, and another 26 percent have no opinion of him.
Ciattarelli has devoted substantial time to shoring up the Republican base, but the polls show that he has fallen far short of his goal in this regard. While in a matchup between the two candidates Murphy wins 83 percent of the Democratic base, Ciattarelli only wins 67 percent of the Republicans.
Yet the worst news by far for Ciattarelli in the polls is to be found in the view of the electorate as to whether the state is on the right track or wrong track. If the right track number is substantially higher than the wrong track number, victory for the incumbent is a virtual certainty.
The current right track-wrong track number is a remarkably high 52 percent right track, 41 percent wrong track. a major positive increase from the 44 percent right track, 56 wrong track number of 2019. This is a huge favorable trend working for an irreversible advantage for Murphy, resulting in an impossibility of a Ciattarelli victory.
The late venerable sage of Montclair, New Jersey, Lorenzo Pietro Berra a/k/a Yogi Berra used to say, “it ain’t over ‘til it’s over.” But barring an Act of God, this election is over, folks.
Jack Ciattarelli can’t help but sense the overwhelming Murphy advantage. He is desperate to generate a factor to cause a negative feeling towards Phil Murphy among rank-and-file voters. Accordingly, he is now engaged in his “Phil Murphy isn’t New Jersey” rhetoric.
This is an ad hominem puerile effort in which Ciattarelli even questions the way Murphy eats pizza. It is reminiscent of the 1981 Republican gubernatorial primary in which the late businessman-candidate Joseph “Bo” Sullivan questioned whether Tom Kean would be comfortable having a beer in Bayonne. Sullivan’s effort failed miserably, as Kean won that primary easily, with Sullivan finishing a distant third.
Yet even worse for Ciattarelli is the way he has delivered his “Phil Murphy isn’t New Jersey” message. New Jersey voters could see this on television as he gave his victory speech the other night. He exuded vitriol and anger at a time when New Jersey voters are in a mood of hope. Such a bitter tone is also unbecoming to Jack Ciattarelli, who is basically a profoundly decent man.
What finally dooms the Ciattarelli campaign is the Trump conundrum in which he finds himself.
I have written numerous columns on how Jack’s refusal to distance himself from Trump would become a major obstacle to his running even a competitive campaign against Murphy. Yet in spite of all his efforts to ingratiate himself with the Trumpist grass roots, the primary results revealed that his efforts have failed to generate any enthusiasm on their part.
Ciattarelli was running against two MAGA clown show candidates in the primary. It should have been a cakewalk for him. Instead, his total of roughly 50 percent just barely exceeded the combined 47.6 percent total of the two MAGA candidates.
Yet the death knell of the Ciattarelli campaign appears to be the issue of the January 6 insurrection and Ciattarelli’s refusal to define the violence of that day as an attempt inspired by Trump to set aside by force the election. The insurrection has been the predominant issue in American politics over the past six months. By inaccurately defining the issue as a Washington conflagration for which both parties bear equal responsibility, Jack Ciattarelli is on the wrong side of both politics and American history as well.
One must always take pains to be fair to Jack Ciattarelli. He is a good man of character and competence. He came into a gubernatorial campaign facing three obstacles that would potentially be politically lethal to any Republican gubernatorial nominee, namely a popular incumbent Democratic governor, a million voter Democratic registration advantage, and the albatross of Donald Trump.
Yet also in the interest of fairness, it must be said that Jack Ciattarelli has made the worst of these problems. Politically, Jack Ciattarelli is Dead Man Walking.
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.