Frontrunner Jack Ciattarelli did not hesitate to go onto the attack while Hirsh Singh sought to brand himself as a standard bearer for former President Donald Trump in the only Republican gubernatorial debate of the year.
Both candidates stuck to supporting policies generally backed by GOP voters. They flew close to agreement on some, though the debate was interspersed with backbiting, crosstalk and factual disagreements.
Singh issued a full-throated endorsement of Trump, repeating baseless claims that he won the November election and calling him “the greatest president of my lifetime and probably for many people’s lifetimes, everyone who is alive today.”
Ciattarelli was more measured, endorsing the former president’s policies on the economy, China and his U.S. Supreme Court nominees but stopped short of backing Trump himself, though he did acknowledge him as the Republican Party’s leader. Ciattarelli granted President Joe Biden’s won in November.
“I hope we’ll get back to Phil Murphy and New Jersey, but Joe Biden won the presidency. The Trump campaign and the Trump team filed 62 lawsuits across this country, with regard to voter fraud and voter irregularity,” Ciattarelli said. “Two of those cases made their way to the Supreme Court, which has a majority of Trump appointments and conservative justices, and both of those decisions went against the Trump team nine to zero.”
The frontrunner launched early and repeated attacks at Singh, saying he paid no property taxes and had accomplished nothing.
“This race — do not try to kid anybody — is not about New Jersey and it’s not about the Republican party. It’s all about you,” Ciattarelli said. “What have you done for anyone to get to help them get elected in this state?”
Singh has launched numerous failed candidacies since 2017, when he got a little less than 10% of the GOP primary vote. Ciattarelli got about 31% that year. Singh launched unsuccessful campaigns for House in 2018 and Senate in 2020, losing both times. He has never held elected office.
Singh countered by calling the former assemblyman a “left winger.”
“There’s more in common between Phil Murphy between Phil Murphy and Jack Ciattarelli than there is with anyone in this race,” he said. “If you’re looking for a real solution, get away from these left wingers that are both in the Democrat and Republican party.”
Two other Republican gubernatorial candidates, Hudson County pastor Phil Rizzo and former Somerset County Freeholder Brian Levine, did not qualify for the debates.
To qualify for a debate, candidates must raise and spend — or commit to spend — at least $490,000, the amount needed to qualify for the state’s public fund match, by April 6. Ciattarelli is the only Republican to qualify for matching funds. Singh met the fundraising threshold because of a $418,000 he made to his campaign.
The debate was sponsored by New Jersey 101.5 and moderated by Eric Scott, the station’s senior political director.
Both candidates supported ending $300 supplemental unemployment payments made available under the $1.9 trillion stimulus bill Biden signed in March, citing it as a cause for the state’s high jobless rate, and each of them supported culling the state’s public workforce.
Ciattarelli backed reforms to the state’s school funding formula that would reduce aid to a small number of districts overseen by the Schools Development Authority while equalizing per-student aid across schools and making the state responsible for special education.
Singh favored school vouchers that would provide public funding for students to attend public, private, charter or parochial schools, among others. He said the program would foster competition and bring improve school quality, even in rural districts where populations are small and incentive
“It wouldn’t matter if you’re in a rural area or an inner-city area, it will foster the type of competition that will lower the cost of education while increasing the quality,” he said.
They split on undocumented immigration. Singh said he would cut state funding to towns that housed undocumented immigrants and backed coordinating with Immigration and Customs Enforcement on deportations.
Ciattarelli didn’t go as far. He attacked Murphy over the governor’s embrace of pro-immigrant policies and said his administration would not seek to bar cooperation between local law enforcement and federal agencies like ICE.
“Phil Murphy’s a bit of hypocrite when he says that he supports private sector unions, those blue-collar jobs, but then encourages illegal immigration with all of his rhetoric,” he said. “We won’t have that under Governor Ciattarelli.”
Both said they would seek to hold Murphy accountable for COVID-19 deaths in the state’s nursing homes, though Singh suggested those deaths were intentionally made to harm Trump politically.
“We must investigate every inch of this and figure out because this almost seems like a weapon that was used against President Trump,” he said.
Both backed eliminating mask mandate in schools and opposed mandatory vaccinations for COVID-19 and vaccine passports.
The two differed on abortion. Singh opposed any exception to the procedure, including in cases of rape and incest, while Ciattarelli said he “supported a culture of life” with some exceptions.
“I cannot look a woman in the eye who’s been a victim of rape or incest and tell her that she has to carry that pregnancy to full term, so I do believe there are exceptions, and there would be under Governor Ciattarelli,” the former Assemblyman said.
Both candidates backed loosening the state’s stringent gun laws. Ciattarelli said he would work with his attorney general to ease restrictions and increase access to firearms for individuals in certain professions, like real estate.
Singh said he would do away with every gun control law enacted since 1966.
“On my very first day as governor, I will use my executive order power to return us to the 1966 right to carry state that they were,” he said. “I will make sure that we protect our concealed carry. I will make sure that we protect national reciprocity.”
The governor’s executive power does not allow him to rewrite state law, where many of New Jersey’s gun laws are codified.
Both candidates said they believed they’d go into office with Republican majorities in the legislature.
That’s exceedingly unlikely. Democrats have a registration advantage of more than 1 million voters, and only a handful of legislative districts are competitive. Many of this year’s Senate battleground districts are ones where Republicans are retiring.
The debate went a little off the rails over an exchange about Singh’s withdraw from a debate that was scheduled to be hosted by NJ PBS Wednesday. Singh claimed the television station required him to be vaccinated. Ciattarelli said that was untrue.
NJ Spotlight News Senior Managing Editor Jamie Kraft on Monday said the debate was cancelled after Singh refused to a requirement to be tested for COVID-19, a requirement he had previously agreed to. The Election Law Enforcement Commission said Singh attempted to change the location and logistics of the event several times after agreeing to the rules.
Singh falsely claimed Ciattarelli was lying, and both candidates had to be reined in after extended crosstalk.
“Have you no decency? PBS never said we had to get vaccinated in order to debate. You’re lying once again,” Ciattarelli said. “The reason you lose is because you lie.”