It’s a big election year, New Jersey, with voters getting to decide who’ll occupy the governor’s office the next four years.
And there’s an increasingly dramatic race for the Republican nomination to challenge Gov. Phil Murphy in the general election as the GOP across the nation deals with a civil war over the lingering influence of former President Donald Trump.
There are four candidates running in the June 8 primary for the Republican nod to face Murphy, who is running unopposed for the Democratic nom as he vies for a second term.
Former state Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli has long been considered the frontrunner, with a massive fundraising advantage and support from county parties across the Garden State. Ciattarelli has spent much of his campaign already attacking Murphy and vowing to lower property taxes via school funding reform.
But engineer Hirsh Singh has been aggressively linking himself to Trump and touting right-wing policies as he tries to gain steam for his underdog candidacy. The ex-president has long drawn poor poll numbers in deep-blue New Jersey, though he remains popular with many Republicans in the state.
Pastor Phil Rizzo is another vocally pro-Trump candidate — and avowed populist conservative — while former Franklin Mayor Brian Levine is on the ticket with a fiscal-reform platform.
The tension in the race came to a head Tuesday night in the primary’s only public debate, in which Ciattarelli went on the offensive, disparaging Singh as a liar who thinks he’s a “king” despite losing multiple races in the past. Conversely, Singh labeled Ciattarelli as a “career politician” who is among the establishment Republicans who have “stabbed” Trump in the back.
Neither Rizzo nor Levine reached the fundraising threshold to qualify for the debate.
The evening got so heated that Singh’s campaign manager and Ciattarelli’s wife got into a confrontation backstage at the debate — a video of which Singh’s campaign posted on social media. That sparked backlash from numerous Republican officials and even Murphy, who tweeted that “attacking a political opponent’s family is appalling and disgraceful” and Singh should apologize.
Plus, a planned second debate was called off when NJ PBS said Singh declined to provide a negative COVID-19 test. Singh claimed the station required him to be vaccinated against the virus, which the station denied.
Here is a closer look at all four Republicans running, in alphabetical order:
Elected experience: Served in the state Assembly, the lower house of the New Jersey Legislature, from 2011-18. Was previously a Somerset County freeholder and council president in Raritan Borough. Also ran unsuccessfully for the 2017 Republican nomination for governor, losing to then-Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno. Guadagno won 47% of that vote, followed by Ciattarelli with 31%.
Occupation: A former certified public accountant and small business owner
Residence: Hillsborough, Somerset County
Family: Married with four children (ages 25, 24, 23, and 21)
Why he wants to be governor: Ciattarelli says Murphy has failed as governor and that he’s the one to “fix” the state’s broken tax and business system.
He has vowed to institute a new school funding formula with a “flatter and more equitable distribution of state aid,” which he said in turn will lower property taxes. He also promises to reform the state’s tax code. And he says he will help revitalize numerous cities that have been “plagued by disinvestment for 40-plus years.”
“New Jersey’s economy will never achieve its full potential unless the seven or eight major cities in our state experience an economic revival,” Ciattarelli told NJ Advance Media.
Murphy’s campaign has tagged Ciattarelli with having “radical” Trump-like positions on the COVID-19 pandemic, reproductive rights, and guns, despite his relatively moderate record in Trenton. Ciattarelli said during Tue
sday’s debate he wants children to be maskless in schools, he believes the only exceptions for abortions should be in cases of rape and incest, he would try to loosen the state’s strict gun laws, and he is against automatic increases in the minimum wage.
Where he stands on Trump: Ciattarelli has had shifting views on Trump. In 2015, he called the then-presidential candidate a “charlatan” who was embarrassing America and was “not fit to be president.” Five years later, Ciattarelli attended then-president’s political rally in Wildwood in January 2020.
He also appeared at a “Stop the Steal” rally at Trump’s golf club in Bedminster in November, though he claimed he wasn’t aware of the event’s theme and that it “turned into something else after I was there.” Ciattarelli has acknowledged that President Joe Biden won the 2020 election over Trump.
During Tuesday’s debate, Ciattarelli said he “supported Trump’s policies” on China, ISIS, Jerusalem, immigration, and the economy.
Asked why he changed his stance, Ciattarelli said he supported then-New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie over Trump in the 2016 Republican presidential primary and that it would have been “un-American” to root against Trump after he won.
Ciattarelli has received the endorsement of U.S. Rep. Jeff Van Drew, R-2nd Dist., a vocal Trump supporter.
How much money he’s raised: Ciattarelli raised $5.7 million and spent $4.4 million, with $1.3 million left, through May 7 — by far the most of the four GOP primary candidates.
He is taking part in the state’s matching funds program, which entitles candidates who raise a certain amount to receive public money as long as they agree to limit campaign spending. He has received about $3.8 million in public money so far.
Elected experience: Former mayor and councilman in Franklin Township and a former Somerset County Freeholder
Occupation: Certified public accountant
Residence: Franklin, Somerset County.
Family: Married with two daughters, one graduating college, the other high school
Why he wants to be governor: Levine says his main goal is bringing fiscal responsibility and more open government to the state.
“What frustrated me about the state is: In the best of times, the state was broke,” he told NJ Advance Media. “Now it’s destitute in hard times. And most people kicked the can down the road. ‘The next guy will take care of it.’”
Levine said he’s the only one running who has been a mayor and had to run a town’s finances.
“I know I can,” he said. “I’ve already done it.”
Where he stands on Trump: “I like some of his policies. But his method is not my method. I know he’s not Miss Congeniality. And when there was an issue (when I was mayor), I liked to bring all sides together.”
How much money he’s raised: Levine does not intend to spend more than $5,800 on the primary. He said that’s because he got into the race late and was “always a grassroots kind of person” anyway.
“I didn’t employ lobbyists or unions,” he said.
Elected experience: None
Occupation: Pastor of the nondenominational, evangelical City Baptist Church in Hobken. Also a former real estate developer.
Residence: Harding, Morris County
Rizzo and his wife live tax-free in a $1.55 million five-bedroom that his church bought, as detailed in a report by Politico New Jersey. Rizzo told the website the church couldn’t pay a salary and instead bought the home as an asset and allowed his family to live there.
Family: Married with four teenage children
Why he wants to be governor: Rizzo says New Jersey is “in deep trouble” and needs “a real conservative” to “rally the Republican base but also pull through party lines.”
He calls himself a populist who is “unapologetically in the right-hand lane” and calls his platform “the New Jersey families ABCs…