Guess who is hanging over the NJ Republican primary to take on Murphy? Yes, Donald Trump.

The four candidates vying for this year’s Republican nomination for governor of New Jersey have at least one common goal: They want to deny incumbent Democratic MP Phil Murphy a second term.

But the specter of another politician has swayed the contours of the race – even though he’s not on the ballot, no longer in office, and carried the poll numbers in Garden State to a deep blue although it is sometimes resident.

We are, of course, talking about former President Donald Trump.

Primary frontrunner former state MP Jack Ciattarelli has drawn a delicate line on Trump, offering praise and avoiding criticism while keeping a distance as he contemplates a general election battle with Murphy in November.

At the same time, two oppressed challengers, Engineer Hirsh Singh and Pastor Phil Rizzo, are fighting for GOP voters by touting shamelessly conservative and pro-Trump agendas. The latter even tweeted a photo of himself and the ex-president in Mar-a-Lago.

The fourth candidate, former Franklin Mayor Brian Levine, says he supports some of Trump’s policies but is not a badass.

So while the June 8 GOP primary in New Jersey – one of only two states to have gubernatorial races this year – is a referendum on who should face Murphy, it also shows the effect Trump is having. still on the party.

“Donald Trump is the guest who wouldn’t be leaving,” joked Ben Dworkin, director of Rowan University’s Institute for Public Policy and Citizenship.

The former Atlantic City casino mogul turned commander-in-chief is likely to be part of the conversation as Ciattarelli and Singh clash in a pair of GOP primary debates on Tuesday and Wednesday – two weeks before registered Republicans vote. (Singh threatened not to participate in one of the debates, hosted by NJ PBS, as it will take place virtually rather than in person.)

Rizzo and Levine did not raise enough money to qualify for the debates.

The influence Trump will ultimately have in New Jersey this year is up for debate. Not only is the state not as red as Alabama or Arizona, but Dworkin noted that Republicans here are “unified” because “they want to win and really want to get rid of Phil Murphy,” a progressive. without an excuse which presents itself without opposition for the Democratic nomination. as he fights for re-election.

Most political experts agree that Ciattrelli, a former business leader and accountant who lost the governor’s Republican primary in 2017, is the party’s favorite this time. He has garnered multiple backing from the county’s Republican parties, has a major fundraising advantage, and enjoys greater notoriety than his three opponents.

But they note that Trump’s New Jersey poll numbers are low only because the state leans toward Democrat and has historically had strong support among Republicans in the state.

This means there could be a narrow, though unlikely, window for a candidate embracing Trump to get a surprise in a low-turnout primary in which grassroots Republican voters cast the majority of the votes.

Carl Golden, the former press secretary for the former Republican governments. Tom Kean and Christie Whitman said Republicans “would at least like to see Jack recognize that Trump remains a force in the party.”

“The trick is figuring out how far you want to go,” Golden said.

And even if Ciattarelli wins the primary, Dworkin said, he still has “a delicate balance” ahead of him “because he needs every Republican vote on board in what is going to be an uphill battle” against Murphy in the general election.

In 2015, Ciattarelli called Trump a “charlatan” who embarrassed America and was “not fit to be president.”

Five years later, Ciattarelli appeared at Trump’s political rally in Wildwood in January 2020 and said the then president “won my support” with policies that “worked for us nationally.”

The Somerset County politician also appeared at a ‘Stop the Steal’ rally at Trump’s Golf Club in Bedminster in November, although he claimed he was unaware of the theme of the event and that it “turned into something else after my arrival”. Ciattarelli’s campaign indicates that the candidate has repeatedly acknowledged that President Joe Biden won the 2020 election against Trump.

Murphy’s campaign has branded Ciattarelli as having “radical” Trump-type positions on the coronavirus pandemic, reproductive rights and guns, despite his relatively moderate record in Trenton.

Ciattarelli pivoted when asked about Trump in a recent interview with NJ Advance Media, instead focusing on the argument that he is the only candidate who can beat Murphy and “fix” the property taxes and the New Jersey business climate.

When asked how he justified his shifting stances on Trump, Ciattarelli said he wanted “a state where everyone felt they could achieve their American dream”, and “they don’t currently. under the Murphy government ”.

When asked if he felt like Trump was an albatross, Ciattarelli said Murphy “wanted to talk about Donald Trump because he was trying to distract people from his failure.”

“I’m focusing on New Jersey,” he added.

The primary was actually supposed to be more Trump-centric when Doug Steinhardt, the former president of the New Jersey Republican Party and a staunch Trump supporter, announced he was running against Ciattarelli.

But Steinhardt gave up after a month, shortly after the Jan.6 uprising in the U.S. capital. Steinhardt denied that his decision was due to this, saying the move was due to “unforeseen professional obligations”.

After Steinhardt’s exit, two other lesser-known suitors who support Trump stepped in.

Singh has waged unsuccessful campaigns for Governor, the United States Senate, and the United States House in recent years. Now he has said his latest gubernatorial campaign aims to make New Jersey affordable. He also called Ciattarelli a “Never-Trumper” and “RINO” – a Republican in name only – and claims he is the only candidate in the race to vote for Trump in 2016 and 2020.

President Trump is the best litmus test for anyone who is in politics or wants to be in politics,” Singh told NJ Advance Media. “Because of the amount of propaganda that has been pushed by the left-wing media, only those who have seen the disinformation can lead the Republican Party successfully.”

Rizzo, pastor of the evangelical non-denominational City Baptist Church in Hoboken, describes himself as a populist who is “unabashedly on the right” but who can build a bridge to Democrats because his platform is centered on helping families .

At the beginning of May, Rizzo tweeted a photo posing with Trump in a fundraiser of $ 2,900 per person at the Former President’s Club in Florida. He also hosted his own fundraiser at Trump’s Colts Neck Golf Club in March.

Singh has pointed out that Rizzo voted third party in 2016. Rizzo argued that he then only had Trump’s “life record” to vote on because he had no political record.

“I understand – although I disagree – I understand the personality conflict that many people have with President Trump,” Rizzo recently told NJ Advance Media. “But his policies were good for America. And New Jersey will regain prosperity by implementing a first type of policy in New Jersey. “

Levine, the former mayor of Franklin and a chartered accountant, said he was running to bring fiscal responsibility back to the state budget. He said he liked some of Trump’s policies, especially related to the Middle East.

“But his method is not my method,” Levine told NJ Advance Media. “I know he’s not Miss Congeniality. And when there was a problem (when he was in office), I liked to bring all the parts together. And I want to say more about New Jersey. “

Of course, there’s a big dilemma that binds you to Trump in New Jersey: Even if you win the GOP nomination, then you have to run for the general election in a state where registered Democrats outnumber registered Democrats. Republicans registered 2 to 1.

Murphy’s campaign has previously released a digital ad that takes advantage of this conundrum.

“Do you know what Republicans running for governor are up to? Who’s like Trump, ”the ad says. “They all are.

Murphy is sure to repeatedly attack any GOP opponent for his pro-Trump comments or positions.

“We find that Murphy’s approval ratings are among the highest they have ever been,” said Ashley Koning, director of the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling at Rutgers University. “Much more than what we’ve seen from governors in the past as they head for re-election. Murphy has name recognition on his side. It would be difficult for any of these primary candidates to turn around. “

Ciattarelli also has the specter of former Governor Chris Christie, a Republican who still has low approval ratings among New Jersey residents, according to a recent Monmouth University poll.

Murphy’s campaign has repeatedly tied Ciattarelli to supporting Christie’s agenda while he was in the assembly – even though the former lawmaker was often one of the governor’s most vocal Republican critics of the day.

Another recent Monmouth University poll showed 57% of adults in New Jersey approve of Murphy’s overall performance, although just under half – 48% – say he deserves a second term, while that 43% prefer someone else.

The latter figure, some Republicans say, shows there is a way to beat Murphy.

Golden, the former spokesperson for the Republican governors, said if Ciattarelli wins the nomination, he needs to sit down with his team and figure out how to “handle the Trump factor” after the primary is over.

“He cannot afford to be drawn into a debate with Murphy over Trump,” Golden said. “You don’t win those. Mainly in New Jersey.

NJ Advance Media Staff Editor Matt Arco contributed to this report.

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Brent Johnson can be reached at [email protected].

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