The race for the Republican nomination for Governor of New Jersey hit the reset button on Monday night with the unexpected withdrawal of former GOP State Chairman Doug Steinhardt from the race. That leaves Jack Ciattarelli, a former assemblyman from Somerset County, as the clear front-runner to take on Gov. Phil Murphy in the fall.
Here are 9 takeaways on what Steinhardt’s decision to drop out means for the race:
1. It’s probably too late for a new candidate to suddenly emerge. The filing deadline to be on the June primary ballot is March 29, but by then all of the organization lines will be spoken for. Deadlines to compete in county endorsement processes are coming up soon: the first one, for Ocean County, the mothership of organization lines, is this Saturday, January 16. By February 1, deadlines in Hunterdon and Bergen (where the second largest number of registered Republicans live) will have passed. And it takes time to qualify for matching funds. Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick might have a little more time – he already did some of the groundwork before announcing that he wasn’t running – but he still faces the immovable county filing deadlines.
2. Ciattarelli needs a new campaign plan. The next five months were supposed to be spent in pursuit of the Republican gubernatorial nomination, but we don’t live in the same world we did one day ago. Barring any last-minute surprises, he’ll be his party’s nominee and he’ll need to shift into general election mode.
3. Despite no primary, candidates are legally obligated to spend $7.3 million. Phil Murphy has already maxed out in qualifying for full public financing, and Ciattarelli will likely get there. That means both will spend millions over the next five months – they can’t carry over primary money into the general election.
4. George Helmy will eat less popcorn in 2021. The governor and his team had expected to sit back and watch Republicans kill each other through the June primary; the race had already tipped the Scoville Scale after just a few weeks, but now Ciattarelli will spend all of his time talking about Phil Murphy. Instead of watching political theater as a spectator, Murphy & Company will now be on the stage.
5. Republicans sometime eat their young. Ciattarelli will need to at least try to unite the New Jersey GOP around his candidacy. The math is simple: New Jersey has a million more Democrats than Republicans, so if Ciattarelli is to win one of the bluest states in the nation, he’ll need to figure out a way to get Trump/Steinhardt Republicans to vote for him without making himself unacceptable to the rest of the state. In GOP circles, Steinhardt remains a popular former Republican State Chairman – and he’s still the Warren County GOP Chairman.
6. There will be a protracted campaign for Lt. Governor. Ciattarelli can expected months of speculation games about his running mate, but now he has no reason to give the job away early in exchange for a critical organization line in a hotly-contested primary.
7. Chris Christie has no horse in this race. The relationship between the William Franklinesque former governor and Ciattarelli has been strained for years. As he mulls another presidential bid, it’s possible that he’ll do so with a New Jersey Governor who won’t support him – or at least, a state party apparatus that will use it’s money to elect Republicans and not fund his pre-campaign travel and expenses. As recently as Monday night, Christie was working the phones in search of a candidate. He could find a self-funder –Republicans keep mentioning Jets owner Woody Johnson, who will soon depart his post as U.S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom – but it likely won’t be Bob Hugin.
8. Steinhardt’s withdrawal affects local races. New Jersey’s most vulnerable Republican State Senator, Kip Bateman, suddenly becomes a little more formidable with his former running mate, Ciattarelli, on the top of the ticket. Any Ciattarelli backers who were opposing a January 16 vote to have an organization line in Morris County because they were afraid Steinhardt could win it no longer face that fear. And candidates who were preparing to run off-the-line with Ciattarelli in the primary might no longer have a path.
9. Donald Trump is still a factor. It’s not clear what the future holds in store for the soon-to-be former president, but he’s not without support in a state where 1,883,274 people voted for him. It is evident that Trump won’t like Ciattarelli, who refused to support him in 2016, but it’s unclear whether he will seek to opine on a gubernatorial race in a state where he usually spends his summer.