When Micah Rasmussen, Director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University, communicated the following tweet last Wednesday, the day after the California recall vote, it was essential for New Jersey political observers to take notice:
“In a nationalized political environment, it is impossible not to look at the suburban Democratic blowout in California and not see dire warning signs for Jack Ciattarelli’s campaign in NJ. There is no sign they are swinging back.”
Micah’s point is irrefutable. In blue states like California and New Jersey, a political media attack against a candidate or national cause for their Trumpist connections is a virtual guarantee of victory for the anti-Trump forces.
We saw that most graphically in the case of the California campaign to recall California Governor Gavin Newsom, which at the beginning had a substantial prospect of success. Once Newsom countered with a massive media anti-Trump thrust, the recall campaign was eviscerated, especially among suburban voters.
In blue states, definitely including New Jersey, there are two primary reasons for the efficacy of any credible anti-Trump thrust.
The first is the noxious racism and bigotry of Donald Trump and his MAGA supporters.
The second is the increasing efforts of Trump forces to undermine faith in election integrity by making despicably false claims of stolen elections against their opponents.
Jack Ciattarelli participated in such a Trumpian effort to undermine faith in the 2020 presidential election integrity by his guest speaker appearance at a stop-the-steal Trumpian rally last November 28. He actually denied having any prior knowledge that the rally was a stop-the-steal event.
The developments of last week, which I discussed in my most recent column (link below), destroyed the credibility of this Ciattarelli denial.
The demolishing of the credibility of the Ciattarelli denial left his campaign in moribund condition. Jack’s disclaimers of responsibility for his knowing participation in the stop-the-steal event has all the believability of Bill Clinton’s protestations that “I did not have sex with that woman” during the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
The fact of the matter is that the courageous anti-Trump Jack Ciattarelli of the GOP 2017 primary, like the biblical Esau, sold his anti-Trump birthright for a mess of political pottage in 2020-2021 in an effort to gain the support of the New Jersey MAGA mob. He is now paying the price.
By contrast, in Virginia, a blue state with a tinge of purple, the Republican gubernatorial candidate, Glenn Youngkin, by avoiding any participatory action in the Trump “stop-the-steal” movement, is poised to score an upset victory over his Democratic opponent, former Governor Terry McAuliffe. According to the most highly reputable Washington Post-Schar School poll, that race has now narrowed to a virtual dead heat.
Full disclosure: I never bet on the outcome of any contest, least of all elections. If I had to gamble on the Virginia election, however, I would bet on Terry McAuliffe to win. The key factor is the Covid vaccine issue, which is a decisive positive for Democratic candidates in most blue states. And if I lived in Virginia, I would vote for him.
Nevertheless, it is abundantly clear that Youngkin’s chances of scoring an upset victory are increasing every day. There are two major factors that distinguish his campaign from the feckless and poorly strategized New Jersey Ciattarelli effort.
The first is that unlike Ciattarelli, Youngkin never participated in any Trumpian “stop-the-steal “activity.
The second is that Youngkin has made the centerpiece of his campaign a proposal to eliminate the state grocery tax. This is an initiative with political dynamite which could be the silver bullet to score an election day victory for the GOP underdog. This is in direct contrast to Ciattarelli, whose major anti-state tax message is limited to a corporate tax reduction proposal, with zero populistic appeal.
First, as to Youngkin’s non-participation in any Trumpian stop-the-steal activity: It is true that Youngkin strongly endorsed the Trump 2020 reelection candidacy and never explicitly denounced the Trump stop-the-steal effort. He did receive the 2021 general election endorsement of Donald Trump, although he was far from the most pro-Trump candidate in this year’s Virginia GOP gubernatorial primary.
Youngkin, however, did emphatically acknowledge the legitimacy of Joe Biden’s victory.
This refusal to cast aspersions on the title papers of Biden’s presidency and his non-participation in any Trump stop-the-steal event gave Youngkin the basis for breaking with Trump on whether he believes Democrats will cheat in the upcoming election.
“No, I think we’re going to have a clean, fair election and I fully expect to win,” Youngkin told moderator Susan Page at the first Virginia gubernatorial general election debate last Thursday.
Now this statement was an absolute political masterstroke for Youngkin. This declaration of independence from the Donald will vastly enhance Youngkin’s appeal to Virginia suburbanites, particularly in Northern Virginia, without causing a reduction in his support from Trump base voters.
There is no way that Jack Ciattarelli can issue such a declaration without flunking every political laugh test. Such a statement of independence will only remind the New Jersey political media of the shameless fealty Ciattarelli provided to the stop-the-steal movement, including his giving his speech at the November 28 rally in front of a Trump supporter holding up a “Stop-the-Steal” sign.
Next, regarding the tax issue: Like virtually every gubernatorial candidate in the past fifty years of both political parties, Jack Ciattarelli has promised to take measures to cause a reduction in real estate taxes. Such promises are now perennially discounted by the voters and no longer believed, as property taxes continue to skyrocket throughout Democratic and Republican administrations.
As for the Ciattarelli pledge to reduce corporate taxes, there is an economic argument that it could lead to enhanced economic growth. And it could be a winner with the friends of New Jersey Republican State Chair Bob Hugin, a Trump-supporting business tycoon who has displayed zero political street smarts and whose most noteworthy political activity to date was his pathetically failed landslide Senate defeat in his 2018 campaign against incumbent US Senator Bob Menendez.
But on Main Street New Jersey, the Ciattarelli corporate tax reduction pledge is politically at best a non-starter and at worst, a campaign initiative with a huge backfire potential. New Jersey taxpayers will not be thrilled to hear that Ciattarelli is poised to give corporate America a break. This makes mincemeat of his commercial claim that “I’m Jack Ciattarelli from Main Street, and he’s Phil Murphy from Wall Street.”
By contrast, the Glenn Youngkin proposal to eliminate the Virginia grocery tax is a mammoth political home run in any park, including Yellowstone.
There is a legitimate argument, made by McAuliffe that such a tax measure cannot be implemented without major cuts to vital state programs, including infrastructure. The voters, however, by and large, won’t care. They hate the grocery tax so much that many will choose to take the risk of placing their faith in Youngkin’s promise that he can eliminate this levy without deleterious reductions in state services.
And the most important player in delivering the grocery tax elimination message will be the campaign manager, Mark Campbell a Camden, New Jersey native with a long and distinguished career in New Jersey campaigns.
Indeed, Mark was a key Republican player in the 1991 New Jersey legislative campaign that won for the GOP veto-proof majorities, the greatest GOP victory in modern New Jersey political history. This campaign was won on one basic GOP promise: A pledge to roll back the sales tax, increased under Governor Jim Florio, from seven percent to six percent.
The campaign was the most effective New Jersey Republican campaign I have witnessed. The key decision makers were the Republican Assembly triumvirate of the then Assembly Republican leader Chuck Haytaian (who became Assembly Speaker after the campaign), GOP Assembly staff Executive Director Don Sico, and Assembly GOP Campaign Coordinator Gregg Edwards. And Mark Campbell was the campaign consultant to some of the most significant district campaigns.
Under Haytaian’s direction, the decision was made to focus on only one of Florio’s tax increases, the sales tax hike. The reasoning, which proved to be remarkably prescient, was that a reduction in the tax with the most broad-based impact, the sales tax, rather than the income tax, would have the most voter appeal.
This decision is remarkably similar to the Youngkin campaign choice to focus on eliminating the most broadly based tax, the grocery tax. I have no doubt that Mark Campbell, with his memory of the 1991 New Jersey Republican legislative campaign, was the major influence in this Youngkin campaign decision.
And I also believe that Mark Campbell was the key player, other than Glenn himself, behind the Youngkin declaration of independence from Trump at the recent debate.
Chuck Haytaian and Frank Holman, the former New Jersey Republican State Chair, were the two most street savvy New Jersey Republican political leaders I have known. Unfortunately, Frank Holman is now deceased, and Chuck Haytaian is now retired. And in reality, nobody has come along since to play the role of New Jersey Republican street smart pol in residence.
Mark Campbell, however, is still in the political game. And if on election day Glenn Youngkin wins while Jack Ciattarelli loses, the cry will arise from New Jersey Republican players and activists in the Trump-decimated New Jersey Republican Party, “Come home, Mark Campbell, come home to New Jersey!”
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.