With a million more registered Democrats than Republicans living in the Garden State—some thriving, others not—it seems like any GOP aspirant looking to warm the seat presently manned by Governor Phil Murphy is in for an uphill battle. The long shadow of Chris Christie on the state and Donald Trump on the nation as a whole continues to blanket New Jersey’s centrist, libertarian, neocon, paleocon, and just-leave-me-alone Right. When Christie left office, he was polling at historic lows, a tremendous flip from the days of surfing the high waves brought on by Hurricane Sandy. Even multi-millionaire executive Bob Hugin, despite a heroic effort in time and capital, was unable to oust a scandal-embroiled Senator Bob Menendez, facing a federal trial while on the campaign.
Nevertheless, as Christie was able to turn his high into a low, Democrats have often proven capable of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Perhaps, with the Forever War—no, not Afghanistan, the one in Trenton between Sweeney and Murphy, or Norcross and the North—Republicans have some reason to feel optimistic about taking a chance for the state’s chief executive post.
Enter, then, five contenders to watch: NJ GOP Chairman Doug Steinhardt, former Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli, Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick, Assemblywoman Holly Schepisi and businessman Joseph “Rudy” Rullo.
The Captain – Chairman Doug Steinhardt is a partner with Florio, Perrucci, Steinhardt & Cappelli, a firm he helped create. As a partner with former Democratic Governor Jim Florio, Steinhardt is immediately seen as someone who is capable of interparty business, something Americans who are weary of bitter partisan politics—especially on the national level—may find appealing. But more than this, Steinhardt has executive experience under his belt. The Belvidere product studied law in Pennsylvania and returned to New Jersey, serving as the Mayor of Lopatcong from January 2000 to January 2015. He became the Warren County Republican Chairman in 2004 and was elected unanimously to captain the party as state chairman in November of 2017. Steinhardt was in command when the Blue Wave of 2018 crashed over New Jersey, eliminating all of the Republican congressmen but Rep. Chris Smith. The wave may have been a victory for Murphy, but it was also seen by many—perhaps unfairly, but just the same—as a referendum on Donald Trump, who has largely ignored New Jersey until Congressman Jeff Van Drew turned in his blue card for a red one. The 2019 elections, however, saw some gains for the battered Republican Party, most notably the ascension of State Senator Mike Testa in LD1. Steinhardt lashed himself to the wheel and can take credit for leading the Party through the storm. A storm, as it was, whose winds may have been largely blown up by the bluster from the Oval Office. But under Steinhardt’s watch, the Republican Party has arrived with reefed sails. It seems likely that the ship will stay afloat and continue to navigate the tempestuous New Jersey political waters, regardless of whether or not Blue Waves crest over the bow. The question remains to be seen whether or not Steinhardt can take that executive experience, as well as survivalist political leadership, and drop anchor in the Governor’s Chair. Moreover, his presumed timed departure from the state party chairmanship more than casually intrigues party members who wonder who can substantially take his place at the tiller.
The Builder – Jack Ciattarelli – a former member of the General Assembly – has already announced his intention to run for governor. Between 2011 and 2018, Ciattarelli represented Assembly District 16 and from 2014 served as House Minority Whip. Ciattarelli comes from a business background, earning an MBA from New Jersey’s Seton Hall, and owning and operating a medical marketing firm, Galen Publishing. Now 58, Ciattarelli entered politics from the ground up, starting as a councilman in Raritan in 1990 for five years, becoming council president. Twelve years later, Ciattarelli was elected a Member of the Somerset Board of Chosen Freeholders, a post he occupied until 2011 when he entered the General Assembly. Always one to aim higher, Ciattarelli then threw his hat into the ring for the governorship at the end of Governor Christie’s term, running in a primary against Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, Hirsh Singh, Joseph Rullo (see below), and Steve Rogers. It was there his ascent ran out of steam. The rest is history. A good businessman knows time is money so Ciattarelli has been making his rounds and taking ‘outside the position’ views to focus on campaigning, but with an insider’s experience. He has fired a number of salvoes at the governor and his progressive agenda, and is immune from at least one attack from the left: he’s no Trump shill. He declared in 2015 that “he is not fit to be President of the United States” following Trump’s allegations of sexual misconduct with women. A double-edged sword? Ciattarelli could be an attractive candidate for conservative Democrats tired of Murphy’s hard left agenda, or Trump-weary Republicans who want to be back to business as usual. But his condemnation could come back to haunt him should Trump win re-election in 2020. Further, Ciattarelli’s strength is derived from his on-the-ground business experience. As a self-made man not tied to huge financial firms, he can tout credibility with those Republicans who constitute the majority of the party—the ones without six-figure incomes. His campaign platform also called for a number of ambitious reforms with education, the root of so much of the tax burden, at its core. He has also kept in the public eye—outside the exclusively political readership—by participating in columns such as “Straight Talk with John & Jack” where he and Democrat John Wisniewski discuss civic and political issues from different perspectives to a more “everyman” audience than the wonkocracy. The marketing publisher has indeed been marketing himself. If it is sufficient to bump past fellow Republicans and then the well-heeled Democrat Machine in 2021 is something only time will tell.
The Survivor – Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick’s roots are in Plainfield, and they run deep. A partner in Bramnick, Rodriguez, Grabas, Arnold & Mangan, he obtained his J.D. from the Hofstra University of Law and began his political career in his hometown, sitting on the Plainfield City Council from 1984-1991. He was the Municipal Chair for Plainfield, keeping a local perch. When Tom Kean, Jr. entered the senate, Bramnick was able to fill the vacancy for District 21 in 2003. He rose to Whip and succeeded Alex DeCroce as Republican Assembly Leader on the latter’s death in 2012. Fast forward to Election 2019 and Bramnick was politically marked for dead by some smug Democrats and pessimistic Republicans, but he managed to successfully navigate the campaign trail as his own man, ultimately retaining District 21 in the besieged Republican sphere. If Bramnick can be characterized as anything, it’s as a nuts and bolts New Jersey Republican. Extolling the need to return to a civilized dialogue, Bramnick does not fit the Trump Republican model and has wanted to put the grown ups back in charge of the conversation. In short, he’s the Republican your parents knew and loved—or at the very least respected. Bramnick lamented the Democratic legislative priorities during the lame duck session, asserting that property taxes and more crucial bread and butter issues were being ignored by a leadership with no regard for thrift. In December, Bramnick said, “The legislature didn’t have a voting session in six months. And when we returned the Democrats posted bills giving criminals voting rights and financial aid, driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants, and make independent contracts jobless.” Bramnick made it clear that his race was not to be categorized in a national context, where Trump dominates all. He parried and dodged Democrat efforts to dislodge his incumbency and, like Cyrano, managed to pull it off with grace, without pomposity but the occasional demonstration of his quick wit—a true survivor.
The Fighter – Holly Schepisi has yet to confirm or deny whether or not she has plans to run for governor, but if she does, any primary opponent would be in for a spirited scrap with the savvy River Vale based attorney and Assemblywoman for the 39th District. With her background in poli-sci from Catholic University of America and a J.D. from Fordham, she sharpened her sword first as Township Attorney for River Vale, as a public defender in Oakland, and as an alternate prosecutor for both Westwood and Old Tappan. With the retirement of Charlotte Vandervalk, the Bergen County Republican Organization tapped Schepisi to take her place for the 2011 election. She held her own against Anthony Iannarelli and Michael McCarthy, holding the seat ever since. When she suffered a brain aneurysm in March of 2015, she fought her way through and, after recovering from surgery, continued her public service. In the 2019 election, she slugged her way successfully through a campaign against John Birkner and Gerald Falotico with Robert Auth as her running mate. The campaign took an ugly spin and jaws wagged when a video appeared of a campaign volunteer being accosted by Birkner himself for signs allegedly on property leased by the Republican campaign. In the end, Schepisi dealt a blow to her opponents that, while not necessarily a knock out, took them out of the ring with a memorable bruising. If Trenton does, in fact, fall into her sights — she is known to say “nothing is impossible”— the Bergen lawyer might well have the stamina and strength to mount a serious primary challenge.
The Outsider – In the lead up to Governor Phil Murphy signing into law expanded opportunity for non-New Jersey residents to obtain driver’s licenses (a law that expressly targets undocumented workers living in the state), failed 2017 gubernatorial candidate Joseph “Rudy” Rullo took to social media to excoriate Trenton Democrats. A movement conservative who is again trying to claim that statewide lane, this time in 2021, Rullo is a graduate of the College of New Jersey and a self-employed businessman. While he lacks the baggage associated with established elected officials, he arguably lacks the organizational weight and conventional base construction possessed by the other candidates. Such a foundation would be critical for any challenger attempting to dislodge a millionaire sitting governor, but the Facebook-hyperactive Rullo persists in making the case for his frank, everyman candidacy.