The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Former New Jersey state legislator Jack Ciattarelli wins Republican nomination for governor

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D) speaks about a fatal shooting during a news conference in Bridgeton, N.J., on May 24. (Matt Rourke/AP)

Former New Jersey state legislator Jack Ciattarelli won the Republican nomination for governor on Tuesday as voters sided with his argument that he had the best shot at unseating first-term Gov. Phil Murphy (D).

Ciattarelli, 59, triumphed over three lesser-known Republicans who entered the race after he’d already announced his candidacy last year. They included Phil Rizzo, a pastor who opposed coronavirus vaccination requirements, and Hirsh Singh, a frequent candidate who pitched himself as the contender most loyal to former president Donald Trump — and who sported a “TRUMP WON” cap in one of his final tweets before polls opened.

The Associated Press projected Ciattarelli as the winner with less than half of the votes counted. At the time, he held a 2-to-1 lead over Rizzo and Singh.

As he fended off accusations that he was insufficiently supportive of Trump, the former state assemblyman pitched himself as the strongest opponent for Murphy.

“We want our democracy back,” Ciattarelli told the talk show “Jersey Matters” last week. “There’s only one guy who can beat Phil Murphy.”

Murphy, who won his first term by 14 points, grew more popular during the coronavirus pandemic, despite Republican criticism over deaths in nursing homes and anger at his lockdown orders from some small-business owners. A Rutgers-Eagleton poll released Tuesday afternoon put Murphy 26 points ahead of Ciattarelli, comparable to the Democrat’s lead at the start of the 2017 race.

While New Jersey has not reelected a Democratic governor since 1977, the state has moved toward Murphy’s party in recent years. Democrats solidly control the state legislature, where they have passed liberal bills central to Murphy’s reelection, like a new tax on high incomes and the legalization of marijuana for recreational use. Trump, who has endorsed in primaries and special elections where Republicans are favored to win, stayed out of the GOP’s primary in New Jersey.

Live New Jersey primary results

Last month, the New Jersey-based Monmouth University poll put Murphy’s job approval at 57 percent. The only governor facing reelection this year, Murphy, 63, has dominated local news with frequent updates on the pandemic and shored up his base with liberal achievements such as the legalization of marijuana.

“You can feel an unburdening up and down the state,” Murphy told MSNBC last week, as New Jersey began ending its coronavirus restrictions.

Murphy’s popularity and wealth — he entered politics after a lucrative career at Goldman Sachs — discouraged most Republicans from entering the race. Ciattarelli, an accountant who had been critical of the national ambitions of former New Jersey governor Chris Christie (R), ran as an outsider who has taken on both parties. With the pandemic dominating voters’ concerns, the Republican argued that Murphy had bungled it.

“The pandemic isn’t easy. We get it,” Ciattarelli said in his first TV ad this spring. “But Phil Murphy’s failures made it worse.”

While Ciattarelli’s rivals had little money, they complicated his effort to skip to the general election against Murphy. The former assemblyman raised $6.9 million for his race, while three rivals raised less than $1.2 million combined. One of them, former Somerset County official Brian Levine, was spending no more than $5,800 on his race, while developer-turned-pastor Rizzo, who entered the race in February, went after conservative votes with his pitch against coronavirus vaccine requirements.

Rizzo objected to Murphy’s shutdowns and the safety measures put in place since then. In his campaign launch video, he appeared with gym owners who defied pandemic restrictions; last month, he threatened the budget of the state university if it refused to reverse its requirement that students who plan to attend in person this fall be fully vaccinated. (Exceptions will be allowed for medical or religious reasons.)

“My administration will send a message to Rutgers: If they don’t drop this vaccine mandate, we will pull $1 billion out of the school,” Rizzo said at a rally near the college, which depends on the state for about one-fifth of its funding.

Ciattarelli spent nearly $6 million ahead of the primary, though, partly to fend off perennial candidate Singh, who had also run for governor in 2017, the U.S. House in 2018 and the U.S. Senate in 2020. Singh relentlessly attacked Ciattarelli for having called Trump a “charlatan” in 2016 and hit Rizzo for voting third-party that year.

After Rizzo shared a photograph of himself with Trump at Mar-a-Lago, Singh accused him of misleading voters, and 2020 Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale tweeted that Singh was the “only pro-Trump candidate” in the field. Singh falsely asserted that“Trump won in 2020.”

While most elected Republicans who weighed in endorsed Ciattarelli, Singh’s attacks annoyed him, and the former assemblyman dubbed him a “loser and a liar” who would throw the election against Murphy.

The governor had no primary opponent, and national Republicans have looked more to Virginia, where Democrats held primary elections Tuesday, than to New Jersey as a place where the party could win power back from Democrats this year.

Virginia Republicans earlier selected former private equity chief Glenn Youngkin as their nominee for governor after a GOP campaign that often turned from issues like taxes and education to a contest of who had been most supportive of Trump. On Tuesday, former governor Terry McAuliffe won the Democratic nomination for a second term.