Ciattarelli wins GOP primary. Most voters chose someone else
Jack Ciattarelli won New Jersey's Republican primary for governor, but the majority of GOP voters did not cast their ballots for him. There are still some votes to be counted, but Ciattarelli received 49% of the votes. Opponents Phil Rizzo, Hirsh Singh and Brian Levine split the rest.
The disparity underscores how deeply divided the Republican party is both nationally and in New Jersey when it comes to former President Donald Trump.
Ciattarelli was branded a "never Trumper" by Trump loyalist Hirsh Singh during the New Jersey 101.5 GOP debate. Singh, Rizzo and Levine all tried to closely align themselves with the former president with each trying to claim they were the most closely allied with Trump. Trump never endorsed a candidate, and a spokesman branded claims he did endorse Singh "fake news."
The challenge for Ciattarelli is now to unite the party, while also appealing to unaffiliated voters and even some Democrats who are lukewarm on their support of Phil Murphy's reelection. In a state where registered Democrats far surpass registered Republicans, it is the only hope Ciattarelli has to win the governor's office.
During the primary, Ciattarelli often deflected questions about his support for Trump by saying he supporting many of Trumps "policies," and then pivoting back to New Jersey. He will likely employ the same strategy in his head-to head with Murphy.
In his victory speech Tuesday night, Ciattarelli ramped up his "Jersey First" rhetoric, branding Murphy as a wealthy interloper who was not a true New Jerseyan. "I'm YOU," Citarelli proclaimed, "He [Murphy] wasn't raised here, never went to school here, never owned a business here." Ciattarelli also blasted Murphy for jetting off to his 23 room mansion in Italy, trying to paint him as a rich elitist who cannot relate to ordinary New Jersey residents.
Murphy ran unopposed in the Democratic primary, and declared victory as soon as polls closed. He never mentioned Ciattarelli by name in a statement released just after 8 p.m. Instead, Murphy recited a litany of progressive ideas and goals "to build a stronger, fairer and more resilient" New Jersey.
Who will win in November?
Six months is a lifetime in politics. Trying to handicap a race this far out from election day is a fools errand. However, a new Rutgers-Eagleton poll shows Ciattarelli trailing Murphy by 26 points and facing a huge name recognition problem. 52% of state residents don't know who Ciattarelli is.
He may also not be able to count on the "anybody but Murphy" vote. That same Eagleton poll puts Murphy's favorability rate at 47% with a job approval rating of 55%.
This could be a big money race
There are only two gubernatorial races in the U.S this November. Virginia and New Jersey. While both Murphy and Ciattarelli have excepted public financing and could roughly have similar individual campaign resources, outside money could be a game changer.
The Democratic Governor's Association has already signaled support for Murphy. Murphy also has access to the deep pockets of the New Jersey Education Association and the Communications Workers of America who contribute millions to a political action committee that has advertised on behalf of Murphy. Ciattarelli is unlikely to be able to match that outside spending.
History is on Jack's side
No Democratic governor has won a second term in New Jersey in 44 years. Brendan Byrne was the last to do it in 1977 when a gallon of gas cost 62 cents per gallon. Since, only GOP governors have been awarded a second term by voters: Tom Kean, Christie Whitman and Chris Christie.
Ciattarelli knows he has an uphill battle, but embraces the challenge. This campaign is "going to be hard, and that's OK by me," Ciattarelli said, "I'm here to fix New Jersey."
Undecided voters will make the difference
Despite having a significant money and name recognition advantage, Murphy is vulnerable. The Eagleton poll found 31% of voters said they would vote for someone other than Murphy. 21% are undecided. If those trends hold up into November, Ciattarelli has a path to victory.
New Jersey residents charged in Jan. 6 Capitol riot (in alphabetical order)
LOOK: Here are the 25 best places to live in New Jersey