Post-primary, Democratic Incumbent New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy appears to be politically invulnerable in his forthcoming campaign for reelection against Republican challenger Jack Ciattarelli. There are two circumstances that account for this.
The first is the fact that as shown by the polls, a majority of New Jerseyans now believe that New Jersey is on the right track. It is virtually impossible for an incumbent governor to lose when the voters feel that way. In fact, one of Phil Murphy’s most remarkable political accomplishments is the sense of optimism he has engendered in the usually skeptical New Jersey electorate.
The second is the identification by the Jersey electorate of Jack Ciattarelli with Donald Trump. New Jerseyans rightfully equate Trump with racism, autocracy, and the prevailing anti-democracy mood within the Republican Party.
Jack Ciattarelli, who ran for the GOP nomination for governor as an anti-Trumper in 2017, is a good, decent, and competent man who is a much better person than his campaign would make you believe. Yet two recent events have made the Trump factor even more toxic for him.
The first is a foolish change Ciattarelli made with his mail pieces right before this month’s primary. Originally, his mail pieces said, “Jack supported President Trump’s reelection and his policies on China, borders, and jobs.” The italicized words were obviously intended to provide some limitation as to Ciattarelli’s identification with The Donald.
Yet as he approached Primary Election Day earlier this month, obviously out of fear that MAGA voters were not accepting him, Jack Ciattarelli deleted the italicized words. The sentence on his mail piece now would read “Jack supported President Trump’s reelection and policies.” Without any words of limitation, the identification of Jack with Trumpism and MAGA was now total.
And last week, the American public learned that Donald Trump was even far more evil as President than previously believed.
Specifically, in a new book by Wall Street Journal reporter Michael Bender, Frankly, We Did Win this Election, it was revealed that Trump implored Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley and Attorney General Bill Barr to use Gestapo tactics against African-American civil rights demonstrators, including “crack their skulls” and “shoot them in the leg – or foot.” It is now undeniable that from January 20, 2017 until January 20, 2021, Benito Mussolini was alive and well and living in the White House – and his name was Donald Trump.
It now appears, however, that while Donald Trump remains an albatross on the Ciattarelli candidacy, he is finished as a presidential candidate. The Trump Organization is about to be criminally indicted, and such a proceeding, whether or not resulting in a conviction, is likely to result both in the downfall of the Trump business empire and the end of Trump’s viability as a presidential candidate. Trumpism will survive, but Trump is finished.
And the conclusive evidence that Donald Trump is presidentially finished is the fact that his two primary political beneficiaries, Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, have stayed away from him. Their opportunism is brazen, yet telling.
The emerging GOP 2024 presidential frontrunner is the illegitimate Trumpist offspring of the Donald, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. https://www.newsweek.com/ron-desantis-edges-out-trump-president-straw-poll-western-conservative-summit-1602375
As I explained in my column last week, DeSantis is far more dangerous to the American future than Trump. In a nutshell, the current Florida governor is a modern-day Charles Lindbergh, without Lindbergh’s antisemitism, but with 1) a huge surplus of anti-African-American bigotry; and 2) a dire threat to democracy and the right to vote, as demonstrated by his enacted voter suppression measures in Florida. When it comes to our national future as a democracy, Ron DeSantis is a Stage 4 Cancer.
And last week, DeSantis signed a bill he had sponsored, which launched a direct assault on academic freedom in Florida. This bill, which goes into effect on July 1, Florida HB 233, requires students and faculty to disclose their political beliefs. DeSantis has already made his threat to cut university and other Florida higher education budgets if he is dissatisfied with the results.
This assault by DeSantis on higher education and academic freedom is way beyond anything the late Senator Joe McCarthy and his two prime aides, Roy Cohn and G. David Schine ever contemplated. In a nutshell, Ron DeSantis is Joe McCarthy, Roy Cohn, and G. David Schine combined, on steroids.
Yet it is the historical example of McCarthy, Cohn, and Schine that provides increased hope that DeSantis will self-destruct. When Joe McCarthy attempted to destroy the independence of the US Army in 1954, it led irrevocably to his self-destruction and censure by the US Senate.
The following scene at the Army-McCarthy hearings in which Counsel for the Army, Joseph Welch, said, to McCarthy “Have you no decency, Senator?” was the inception of the downfall of the Wisconsin Senator.
And last week, there was a replay of the infamous 1954 McCarthy-Welch confrontation at a meeting of the House Armed Services Committee, with the role of Joe McCarthy played by Florida Republican Congressman Matt Gaetz, the Florida political figure who was the most instrumental in the rise of Ron DeSantis.
Gaetz is one of the most contemptible and despicable members of the US House of Representatives over the past century. Evidence is mounting regarding allegations of his sexual predatory behavior. And most offensively, Gaetz has been a defender of Holocaust denier Charles Johnson, whom he invited as his guest to President Trump’s 2018 State of the Union message.
Playing the role of Joseph Welch was the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the aforesaid General Mark Milley, an emerging American hero. In response to the inquiry led by Gaetz, an ill-disguised effort to eliminate the study of Critical Race Theory at the United States Military Academy, General Milley called it “offensive” that service members were being called “quote, ‘woke’ or something else, because we’re studying some theories that are out there.”
He then gave the following ringing defense of academic freedom at West Point:
“I’ve read Mao Zedong. I’ve read Karl Marx. I’ve read Lenin. That doesn’t make me a communist. So what is wrong with understanding, having some situational understanding about the country for which we are here to defend?”
In the long run, DeSantis’s battle with the Army, waged through surrogates like Gaetz, may well result in disaster for him, just as it did for Joe McCarthy. It is likely, however, that DeSantis will retain his GOP presidential 2024 frontrunner status, at least through this November. And that creates an enormous dilemma for Jack Ciattarelli, as to whether he should invite DeSantis to assist him in his gubernatorial campaign, both by campaign speeches to Republican base supporters and fundraising efforts.
Among the great majority of New Jersey voters, particularly Independent voters, DeSantis assistance would backfire badly on the Ciattarelli campaign, given the Florida governor’s racist, anti-democracy, and anti-academic freedom views. His cultural war message would be a catastrophe for Republican candidates in the Garden State, from top to bottom.
The Republican gubernatorial candidate has continuously pushed the argument that Phil Murphy is not really New Jersey. Yet nothing could be more antithetical to New Jersey values than for Jack Ciattarelli to have Ron DeSantis campaign for him. After inviting Ron DeSantis to assist his candidacy, any claims by Ciattarelli that Phil Murphy is not really Jersey would flunk the laugh test
In short, without question, DeSantis campaign assistance to Jack Ciattarelli would spell fini la comedie to the GOP gubernatorial candidate’s campaign.
Yet Ciatarelli will be under enormous pressure to invite DeSantis from two constituencies who care much less about Jack than they do about their own political futures. These constituencies are 1) MAGAWORLD; and 2) GOP MegaDonors.
MAGAWORLD consists of true Trumpist believers and cultural warriors. They will spread the word that Trumpists should stay at home and not vote if Ciattarelli snubs DeSantis.
The GOP MegaDonors have one interest and one interest only. They want a seat at the table in the 2024 GOP presidential campaign in order to be in the running for ambassadorships, high level administration positions, and access to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in the event of a GOP victory. They view DeSantis as the likely Republican presidential nominee, and they would view any Ciattarelli snub of the Florida governor as an undesirable obstruction of their efforts to curry favor with him.
So will Jack Ciattarelli surrender to MAGAWORLD and the GOP MegaDonors and invite Ron DeSantis to campaign for him in the Garden State, even though it obliterates the already badly diminished chances of his scoring an upset victory?
I can only hazard a guess as to what Ciattarelli will do. I will say this with virtual certainty, however. If Jack Ciattarelli invites Ron DeSantis to participate in his campaign in an effort to placate MAGAWORLD and the GOP MegaDonors, he will be the sacrificial lamb of his own candidacy.
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.