The New Jersey Republican gubernatorial candidate is using a new approach to appeal to the state’s Democratic-leaning electorate without angering the GOP base – and he’s letting the base participate.
“I will never be disrespectful at the grassroots, but you have to give me a little leeway,” Jack Ciattarelli told a conservative crowd at a gun stand in the historically Republican County of Hunterdon at the end of the last month, according to video footage obtained by POLITICO. “Give me a little wiggle room to spend time in places Republicans typically don’t go to. And give me a little leeway on how to talk about the issues. Because the goal is to win.
Ciattarelli, a former state lawmaker with a reputation for moderate, said he said the same to an audience in even redder Ocean County, the most pro-Trump county of State.
“What I told them is if you see me here too often, we are going to lose,” he said at the shooting range.
Ciattarelli has tried to walk this tightrope since launching his underdog campaign for governor in early 2020. It has only gotten more difficult since he won the Republican primary last month afterward. that two candidates ran to his right as Donald Trump’s henchmen split the MAGA vote. It was also a common strategy for any Republican running statewide in the deep blue of New Jersey.
The difference this year is that Ciattarelli is making its approach public.
But the strategy is “not news,” Ciattarelli campaign spokesman Stami Williams said in a statement to POLITICO.
“Jack does what he always does: have frank, honest conversations with Democrats, Republicans and Independents across New Jersey. Nothing is off limits, ”said Williams. “He goes everywhere and talks with – and listens to – everyone about issues that concern a majority of New Jerseyans.”
New Jersey Democrats haven’t seen one of their governors re-elected since 1977, but Gov. Phil Murphy is well positioned to break that trend. His approval rating, which averaged over the first two years of his tenure, increased during the early stages of the pandemic. And although it has fallen since then, recent polls have consistently shown it above 50 percent. A recent poll had placed him ahead of Ciattarelli by 15 percentage points.
Meanwhile, New Jersey Democrats continued to outperform Republicans in voter registration. The unpopularity of former President Donald Trump in the state, where he spends his summers at his golf club in Bedminster, has also hurt Republicans’ fortunes.
In a question-and-answer session at the gun stand event last month, Ciattarelli pointed out that he won the election in places where there were a lot of Democrats because “I’m going where Republicans generally don’t go. “
“I go to the brown community, I go to the black community, I go to democratic places. And I’m … not talking about abortion and gun law. What I’m talking about are… things that everyone wants, no matter who they are, ”he said.
“Everyone wants an opportunity. Everyone wants security. And I believe a prudent, sensible approach to lowering taxes, shrinking the size of government, providing opportunities in the private sector for business owners is what does best. And when I do that, this is what I get, ”Ciattarelli said, nodding.
But at the same event, he also threw red meat at the base. While criticizing a new curriculum law that requires students to be made aware of the societal contributions of LGBTQ and people with disabilities, Ciattarelli said, “We don’t teach sodomy in grade 6.”
Although Ciattarelli later clarified that by “sodomy” he was referring to unrelated requirements that children must be able to identify vaginal, oral and anal sex by eighth grade, Murphy, and other Democrats. and gay rights organizations have seized the comment and made sure it dominates headlines.
“The last thing we need is to use words that everyone knows are third rail words that also have meaning,” Murphy told reporters last week. “This is New Jersey. It’s the United States in 2021. Enough already.
Julie Roginsky, a Democratic strategist who was one of Murphy’s main campaign staff in 2017, but then broke up with the governor, said Ciattarelli had the right idea in terms of the message – he’s not following it simply not.
“Congressman Ciattarelli is quite literal about what Republicans have traditionally done and what they need to do to win elections across the state of New Jersey,” Roginsky said in an interview. “Unfortunately for him, he doesn’t. He spends more time getting bogged down in conversations about anal sex than talking to people he knows he needs to talk to about issues he knows he needs to talk to.
Even some Republicans question Ciattarelli’s strategy.
Colin Reed, a GOP strategist who served in former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s communications office, said for Republicans to win in a deep blue state like New Jersey, they have to paint their Democratic opponent as “totally ineligible” and present themselves as a “moderate alternative acceptable to the center-left electorate”.
“Every time you go on to explain the tactics and process of the campaign instead of disqualifying your opponent or explaining why you are the best alternative is just wasted. [time]said Reed, who was also campaign manager for former Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.).
“Even though what he says may be true, there is no political advantage in explaining it to voters,” Reed said in an interview. “It’s one of those things that I think belongs to an internal campaign strategy call rather than… a public event with voters you’re trying to persuade.”
As a member of the General Assembly from 2011 to 2018, Ciattarelli represented a swinging neighborhood in central Jersey and was part of a small group of moderate GOP elected officials willing to publicly criticize Christie.
But his swerve just before and during the 2021 primary gave Democrats ammunition in a state where the backlash against Trump in 2018 nearly wiped out Republicans in his delegation to Congress.
After calling Trump a “charlatan,” Ciattarelli began to emphasize during his unsuccessful GOP run for the 2017 gubernatorial nomination that he agreed with Trump’s policies. In this year’s primary campaign, he said he voted for Trump in 2020.
Following the election of Joe Biden as President, Ciattarelli was one of the featured speakers at a “Stop the Steal” rally supported by MAGA. But later, as his main opponents – Hirsh Singh and Phil RIzzo – broadcast false conspiracy theories that the 2020 election was stolen by Trump, Ciattarelli admitted Biden won.
On June 2, Ciattarelli organized a town hall in Toms River which focused on issues such as lowering property taxes, changing the state tax code.
“We have the worst property taxes in the country,” he said. “And it’s the worst state of the union – year after year in the Business Journal – in which to do business. That’s what I’m focusing on. ”
He also said that “as a Republican you have to go where Republicans typically don’t. It is my obligation as a candidate for governor. They are also citizens. We’re all equal in this, all 9 million of us.
Daniel Han contributed to this report.