Phil Rizzo, a former real estate developer who is now the pastor of a small Baptist church in Hudson County, is mounting a come-out-of-nowhere campaign for the Republican gubernatorial nomination.
Rizzo is suddenly being taken seriously, and while that certainly doesn’t mean he can win, it doesn’t necessarily mean he can’t — if he catches some enormous breaks. Right now, he’s at least worth paying attention.
The New Jersey Globe spoke to more than a dozen Republican party leaders and strategists – and a few Democrats – this week, and here’s what we’ve learned about Rizzomania in New Jersey.
1. Rizzo seems to be raising money. He has filed for matching funds with the Election Law Enforcement Commission, according to POLITICO’S Matt Friedman. That means he’s raised at least $490,000 in contributions of $4,900 or less – and that could net him over $1 million to spend. If Rizzo qualifies for the first round of matching funds, he’ll at least be on his way to breaking out of a legitimate candidate.
2. What Rizzo raises and what he spends to reach voters might be entirely different numbers. The firm he used to produce a campaign ad aimed at boosting his fundraising might be taking a ginormous cut of what Rizzo raises. The Washington Post reported that Arsenal Media Group and Olympic Media, a digital fundraising company, helped a Baltimore-based congressional candidate raise more than $8 million last year after a video went viral, but they kept more than half of it. (Arsenal said that Olympic Media gets most of the money.)
3. Donald Trump is the elephant in the room. Some Republicans believe the former president might endorse Rizzo, especially if anyone from his inner circle wind up working for him. That’s a game changer in a GOP primary. A Project Ready poll last December showed that 77% of New Jersey Republicans believed Trump won the 2020 presidential election.
The withdrawal of former GOP State Chairman Doug Steinhardt on January 11 left the Trump wing of the New Jersey Republican Party without a horse in the race. Steinhardt had sharply criticized Jack Ciattarelli, who had refused to back Trump in 2016. Steinhardt released a video slamming Ciattarelli’s anti-Trump statements on the morning of January 6, just hours before protestors stormed the U.S. Capitol. Rizzo didn’t support Trump either in 2016, but Ciattarelli was a higher profile figure. Rizzo could be forgiven if he’s got the backing of Trump insiders.
There’s a big difference between an endorsement by the former president and his active assistance, and it’s important to remember that Trump will likely be calling Bedminster home around the time of the New Jersey primary. It’s not clear if Trump is ready to expend some 2022 political capital on a 2021 New Jersey gubernatorial primary.
One more point: Rizzo is a member of the Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster.
4. Qualifying for matching funds and real support from Trump Republicans will change the race fast. Right now, Ciattarelli is the presumptive nominee. If Rizzo catches on, he’ll get a designation change to front-runner. That’s still good, but it’s a demotion, nonetheless.
5. It’s hard to imagine a candidate who ran the table on organization endorsements lose, but it’s happened before. Bret Schundler won the GOP gubernatorial nomination in 2001 despite Bob Franks having every line but Hudson, but there was a huge asterisk in that race. Schundler had gained a national profile as the mayor of Jersey City, and Franks entered the race late after Gov. Donald DiFrancesco withdrew just after the filing deadline. Jeff Bell, a former Ronald Reagan speechwriter, ousted four-term incumbent Clifford Case in the 1978. But Case was an old-fashioned liberal Republican and wasn’t taking the primary seriously; in that primary, Rep. Jack Kemp had become a conservative superstar and he endorsed Bell.
6. Rizzo hasn’t connected with Republicans yet, and he’s only got 61 days to do it. Rizzo didn’t really compete for the organization line, and when he did, in Morris County, Jack Ciattarelli beat him by a 77%-23% margin. Still, he’s not without some establishment support. Friedman reported that Rizzo is getting help from former Ocean County GOP Chairman George Gilmore, whose political smarts are not to be underestimated. In some parts of the state, he’ll be on the line with brand names: Assemblyman Jay Webber in parts of Essex and Passaic counties, and Assemblywoman Serena DiMaso in part of Monmouth – but that’s just two out of 40 legislative districts. He’s also won the support of the Atilis Gym in
7. He has a compelling story, but he’s also got some possible baggage. When he was four-years-old, a basement beam fell on and crushed his right arm, causing an amputation at his elbow. Still, he excelled at sports and played high school football at Morris Catholic. He’s a political outsider for sure, a successful businessman, founder of a private school, and a pastor. If the father of four wins the nomination, he’d be the first clergyman to run for governor since Lester Clee in 1937 – but Clee, the minister of the Second Presbyterian Church in Newark, was a state senator and former Assembly Speaker.
Friedman reported on Tuesday that Rizzo bought a $1.55 million, five-bedroom home on six acres in Harding Township and then sold it to his church for $1.65 million two years later. Because the church owns the home, it’s exempt from local property taxes. That’s a real campaign issue, if he emerges as a serious enough threat to merit being attacked.
7. Democrats are giddy over Rizzo. New Jersey is one of the bluest states in the nation, with more than 1 million more Democrats than Republicans, but it’s been 44 years since a Demcoratic governor has been re-elected; three GOP governors have been elected and re-elected since then. But there’s no evidence that a staunch conservative can win statewide. Jeff Bell and Brett Schundler won upset primary victories, but they got crushed in the general election. Donald Trump won 41% of the vote in New Jersey last year.
Per Friedman: “On Twitter, Rizzo has espoused baseless claims about alleged voter fraud in the 2020 presidential election and conspiracy theories that left-wing activists were responsible for the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.”
Both parties think that Jack Ciattarelli is electable in November in a race that might be incumbent Phil Murphy’s to lose. Rizzo, some Republicans say privately, could knock Ciattarelli off what had largely been viewed as an open runway toward November after Doug Steinhardt exited the race. Ciattarelli still hasn’t closed his deal with GOP primary voters, and now he’ll need to make sure he doesn’t lose the primary on his way to the general election.
Here’s an example: Edward Durfee, the Northern NJ Regional Director of the Oath Keepers, an anti-government militia group that prosecutors think was involved in the January 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol, is the choice of Bergen County Republicans to run for State Assembly in the 37th district. Earlier this week, Ciattarelli declined to disavow his candidacy.