Ciattarelli may be nimble, and also pretty quick but, electorally speaking, he’s up a crick. The first general election poll of the season shows Democrat Phil Murphy besting the new Republican nominee by 48 to 33 percent, echoing other recent polls showing a double-digit head start for the incumbent governor. There is a lot of time to campaign between now and November, better than four months. But the political environment will have to shift dramatically and quickly to move the tide of opinion enough to erase the strong advantage Democrats have in this statewide election.
In fact, Republican challengers in New Jersey have succeeded in ousting an incumbent governor only when they had a long runway. Jim Florio’s increased sales and excise taxes, which he passed in the first year of his term, begat a steady and growing resentment over the next three years that led to his challenger, Christie Whitman, edging him out by the slightest of margins in 1993.
Over a decade later, Chris Christie challenged Gov. Corzine after the national economy went south with the spectacular meltdown of the housing market and Wall Street in 2008 which pushed unemployment over ten percent and ushered in a dark season of national discontent. It did not help that Corzine spent several months in the hospital recuperating from a car crash and postponing his agenda. Even so, his Republican challenger could not manage to get even 50% of the vote against the wounded Democratic incumbent.
Ciattarelli meanwhile has the name recognition of neither of the Republicans named Christie. Christie Whitman in her 1993 gubernatorial challenge had already run a statewide race, surprising everyone by almost knocking Bill Bradley out of his Senate seat and, as a consequence, gaining a statewide reputation. Before challenging the incumbent in 2009, Chris Christie spent several years as the US Attorney General, splashing his name into the headlines again and again with big busts. His crusade against public corruption netted mayors, county executives, and state senators, including a former senate president.
As for Ciattarelli, 70 percent of voters know nothing about him. His name is hard to pronounce and harder to spell, always a disadvantage when trying to brand a candidate. Moreover, he is burdened with a party that is, in turn, burdened with a de facto loyalty oath to the 45th president which apparently requires candidates to claim the 2020 presidential election was stolen by urban [read black] voters, international communists, the long-dead president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, and other people from hell. Indeed, Jack barely mustered half of the Republican primary vote though running against two candidates who were, to put it most charitably, marginal. Each ran on a platform of being more Trumpy than Jack and definitely more Trumpy than thou. For the general electorate, to which the Republican nominee will have to offer some appeal, fealty to the Republicans’ national cult leader is a non-starter.
On the bright side for Republicans, the FDU poll also notes that a quarter of independent voters and another 6 percent of Democrats say The Donald should be welcomed in our Garden State, suggesting Ciattarelli may have a narrow path to expand his support. But on the downside for Jack, Trump will literally be here this summer to haunt the candidacy of a man who once called him a polarizing opportunist, a charlatan, and unfit to be President.
Ciattarelli is a successful businessman, a veteran of New Jersey policy, energetic, smart, and good on the stump. So, Jack is nimble, and Jack is quick, but in this election, he’s carrying a brick.
Peter J. Woolley is the Director of the School of Public and Global Affairs at Fairleigh Dickinson University.