The battle for the Trump base is turning the New Jersey GOP primary on its head


Donald Trump

But the dueling news shows how hard Singh and Rizzo are trying to win Trump’s base, which despite the state’s strong anti-Trump bias, is still a force in New Jersey’s GOP politics. The pair associate with figures from the orbit of the former president and repeat false conspiracy theories that claim he is the real winner of the 2020 election.

The battle for the base has paved the way for Jack Ciattarelli, the leader in the GOP area code. Many Republicans say Ciattarelli, who called Trump a “charlatan” in 2015, is the only candidate who has a chance of defeating Democratic Governor Phil Murphy in November.

“I think Jack will win,” said State Senator Joe Pennacchio (R-Morris), who served as New Jersey co-chair for Trump’s 2016 and 2020 campaigns but supported Ciattarelli in the primary. “Rizzo and Singh are both fighting for the same vote. They will cannibalize this vote. “

Ciattarelli, who has served three terms in the General Assembly, has not disavowed Trump. He praised some of the former president’s policies but distanced himself from Trump’s personality and walked the fine line between being neither anti-Trump for the primary nor pro-Trump for the general election in a deep blue state.

New Jersey is one of only two states – Virginia is the other – with gubernatorial elections scheduled this year, making the area code an early temperature control of the Republican Party state. Ciattarelli’s balancing act could be a sign that 2022 will come, when Trump will almost certainly still be a factor in the midterm elections and Republicans aspiring to governors and other offices in blue and bluish states will have to try to get through the primaries navigate while remaining palatable to the general electorate.

“I think if the other two won the primary, the focus would be less on Phil Murphy and New Jersey,” Ciattarelli said in a recent interview. “So let’s do everything about New Jersey. I will do that, and I will be very, very disciplined in that sense. Phil Murphy will want to keep talking about it [former Republican Gov.] Chris Christie and Donald Trump. “

No independent polls were conducted for the race, but Ciattarelli has a huge fundraising advantage over its rivals. As of May 25, Ciattarelli, the only Republican candidate to qualify for state campaign funding, had spent nearly $ 6 million, compared with Singh’s $ 510,000 and Rizzo’s $ 442,000.

Murphy, who faces no challengers in the Democratic primary, saw his once mediocre surge in popularity during the pandemic, and although his approval rating has dropped at the height of the pandemic since the 1970s, he remains popular.

But it has weak points.

New Jersey has the highest pandemic death rate of any state, largely due to thousands of deaths in nursing homes. Critics have objected to the Murphy administration’s instruction that nursing homes re-admit discharged Covid-19 patients when possible. The state’s unemployment rate has been slow to recover from the pandemic and remains one of the highest in the country. And at the start of his tenure, Murphy’s government was grilled by officials over its decision to hire a campaign worker for a senior role in state government, despite a campaign volunteer accusing him of sexual assault in 2017.

In recent years, government scandals have often been overshadowed by constant news from the Trump administration. The backlash against the former president has helped Democrats take control of a few suburbs across New Jersey, as well as a district – Ciattarelli’s home, Somerset – that held GOP for decades. In the 2018 midterm elections, the state’s congressional delegation rose from seven Democrats and five Republicans to eleven Democrats and one Republican. (One of those Democrats, Jeff Van Drew, later became a Republican after declaring his “undying support” for Trump.)

The Murphy campaign has issued a series of press releases commemorating Ciattarelli’s pro-Trump statements and his participation in a “Stop the Steal” rally in the fall when he was in the GOP primary against a more formidable pro-Trump rival should compete in the then Republican state chairman Doug Steinhardt.

“The question New Jerseyans need an answer to is: How far is Ciattarelli willing to go to appease the far right? He’s apparently fine being on the ballot with an oath-keeper. Or a KKK member? Or a neo-Nazi? ”Phil Swibinski, spokesman for the New Jersey Democratic State Committee, said in a recent press release, referring to Ciattarelli’s refusal to reject a member of the far-right Oath Keepers who is running for the North Jersey assembly.

During the only debate in the Republican primary last month, Ciattarelli said he supported many of Trump’s policies.

“He played hard with China, went to war with ISIS, recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Its economy was great, ”said Ciattarelli.

But during an interview with POLITICO last week, Ciattarelli also voiced some criticisms of the Trump administration’s policies on New Jersey, such as the Gateway project to build a new rail tunnel between New Jersey and Manhattan, admitting that the GOP is having a political Backlash from Trumpism was faced.

“Certainly the Republicans in New Jersey did not do well during the Trump era. While his politics worked at the national level, there was one that I disagreed with the president about, ”he said.

Ciattarelli’s pro-Trump statements pale in comparison to those of his rivals.

During last month’s debate, Singh called Trump “the greatest president of my life” and reiterated the lie spread by Trump and his allies that the 2020 elections were stolen. “We all know Trump won,” he said.

Singh’s campaign even came into play with Ciattarelli’s wife Melinda over Trump. While watching the radio debate in a back room of the station, King Penna, Singh’s campaign manager, called Ciattarelli a “never Trump loser” and said, “He didn’t vote for Trump. You neither.”

“Yes he did. He supported [Trump]“Said Melinda Ciattarelli.

Some New Jersey Republican leaders consider Singh’s embrace of Trump a cynical ploy. This is Singh’s fourth campaign for office in as many years. He ran for governor in 2017, for the US House of Representatives in 2018 and for the US Senate in 2020 without winning the Republican nomination. Keith Davis, the GOP chairman of Singh’s home county, Atlantic, said Singh didn’t seem interested in working his way up to prominent office.

“Hirsh Singh wants to be something. He doesn’t want to do anything. He picked up this message in the area code because he thinks it will take him somewhere, ”said Davis, who supports Ciattarelli.

Rizzo used the slogan “Make New Jersey Great Again” to spread false conspiracy theories popular among Trump supporters that the January 6th uprising in the US Capitol was carried out by left-wing activists in MAGA clothing. Rizzo ran a fundraiser at a Trump-owned Monmouth County golf course and hired George Gilmore, a former powerful New Jersey political chief whose criminal tax convictions were pardoned by Trump on his last day in office, as political advisor.

Singh and Rizzo did not respond to calls asking for comments. But the Democrats have made it clear that they want to hear more from them.

The Democratic Governors Association, which Murphy previously chaired, recently released a poll of the Republican primary, commissioned by a Democratic company, Public Policy Polling. It showed that Ciattarelli Singh led with 29 percent to 23 percent, with Rizzo with 8 percent.

Republicans were skeptical of the poll because of the source, among other things. And the DGA probably wouldn’t have leaked it if they didn’t want to send a message. But the poll also showed that Ciattarelli has a path to nomination, albeit perhaps a narrower one than expected, by splitting the MAGA vote.

There is a scenario that could lead either of the two to victory: an explicit affirmation from Trump, who summers in Bedminster. But just days before the area code, there is no sign that this will happen.

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