‘I’m going to do what’s right’: Bramnick criticism of Trump could hurt his statewide prospects



New Jersey Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick addresses reporters during the Republican response to Gov. Phil Murphy's 2019 State of the State address.


Jon Bramnick, who leads the minority party in the state Assembly, is also a member of an even lonelier club — New Jersey Republicans willing to openly criticize President Donald Trump.

For three years, Bramnick has warned that Trump’s rhetoric hurts New Jersey Republicans. It’s been borne out by the party, which has lost several congressional seats and control of some counties that were once solidly Republican. This year, New Jersey Republicans face the prospect of even more suburban backlash to Trump.

Bramnick (R-Union) plans to decide sometime after the Nov. 3 election whether he’ll seek the Republican nomination for governor in 2021. But he knows full well that prescience doesn’t mean political success in a party whose base and other leadership is fiercely loyal to the president.

“I couldn’t go out and fake it. This type of disrespect for other people that I’ve seen by the president is not what I believe the Republican Party stands for,” Bramnick said in a phone interview. ”I’ll speak up, and if that authenticity is what the Republican Party wants, whether I run for governor or reelection, they can make that determination. But I’ll tell you, I’m going to do what’s right.”

Bramnick is one of three major Republicans who are either running or known to be openly flirting with seeking the party’s nomination to challenge Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy next year. Former Assembly member Jack Ciattarelli launched his campaign nine months ago, while Republican State Chairman Doug Steinhardt is widely expected to run but has not yet declared.

Ciattarelli, though initially critical of Trump, has since expressed tepid support for the president. Steinhardt has unequivocally aligned himself with Trump and has criticized Bramnick for going after the president.

But while Steinhardt comes from rural, deep-red Warren County, Bramnick lives in Westfield, a wealthy town in the New York City commuter belt that has been home to many of the state’s elite Republicans, including Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr., GOP strategist Mike DuHaime and former Chris Christie chief of staff Richard Bagger.

The town was under all-Republican control until Trump took office. Then Democrats started winning elections there, and now hold all but one seat on the Town Council. Some neighboring communities have followed the same trajectory. And Westfield‘s congressional district, the 7th, which for years was represented by moderate Republicans like Bob Franks, Mike Ferguson and Leonard Lance, is now represented by the stridently anti-Trump Democrat Tom Malinowski.

“I believe that most of the losses in towns such as Summit, Westfield and Cranford are related to a reaction to Trump’s win and Hillary Clinton’s loss,” Bramnick said. “All I’m saying is we need to face reality: You lose all your congressional representatives and historically Republican towns and you say, ‘Maybe we should look at that.‘”

In Bramnick’s hometown, another Republican has taken a different approach to Trump. Kean Jr. is running for Congress against Malinowski in the 7th District and, while he has attempted to avoid talking about the president, he’s has said he supports him and attended a Trump rally in South Jersey earlier this year.

Bramnick has already had a test run for how his rhetoric would play in a general election in his state legislative district. In 2019, Democrats for the first time put significant resources into a challenge against him, which was complicated by two Republicans who ran as independents against Bramnick because of his anti-Trump rhetoric.

Bramnick defeated his closest Democratic opponent by about 2 percentage points.

“Let me make it clear: Two people who said I was not pro-Trump enough, they ran against me, they sent out fliers saying I was a fake Republican and that I should apologize for everything I’ve said about the president,” Bramnick said. “If that’s not strong enough in terms of my feelings about the actions of the president, I don’t know what is.”

Bramnick takes issue more with Trump’s rhetoric than his policies — especially the president‘s penchant for belittling his opponents with names. But he did fault Trump and congressional Republicans for lowering the state and local deduction on federal taxes. That move, he said, hurt the GOP in New Jersey, the state with the highest property taxes in the nation.

“He could have phased that in over five years,” Bramnick said. “Their theory was that this teaches the Democratic states such as New Jersey that you’ve got to lower taxes. Well, if that’s the message, at least give the state a five-year opportunity to react and then we can use it against the Democrats. But you just take it away.”

Bramnick also faulted Trump for calling Anthony Fauci, a member of the White House coronavirus task and head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, an “idiot.”

“I think you need to show this is not about you. It’s about the science and leadership of the country. Getting mad and calling people names is problematic,” Bramnick said.

Bramnick declined to say whether he will vote for Trump on Nov. 3.

Micah Rasmussen, a political science professor at Rider University, said that if Bramnick does run for governor, his best chance of surviving in a primary may be a crowded race in which he’s able to carve out a niche as the only Republican willing to call out Trump’s detriment to the party.

But it’s equally, if not more plausible that county GOP chairs and the party faithful will remain loyal to Trump and blame dissenters like Bramnick if the president loses to Democrat Joe Biden.

“Someone like Bramnick could be scapegoated for not being with Trump,” Rasmussen said. “They could say, ‘here’s a guy you can blame.’“

DuHaime, a Republican strategist who is friends with Bramnick and works for him, acknowledged Bramnick could face a hard time with primary voters because of his open criticism of Trump. But he also said some of the things voters liked about Trump four years ago — his willingness to criticize prominent figures of his own party and challenge key party platforms on trade issues — show Republican voters could be open to someone willing to go against the party.

“In some ways, leaders go out and change opinions and aren’t afraid to buck the trend,” DuHaime said. “While some people may not agree with Bramnick, I think people are going to respect that he’s held fast to his opinion, whether popular or unpopular.”

But state Sen. Michael Doherty (R-Warren), the first New Jersey Republican lawmaker to back Trump for president, said that by speaking out against the president, Bramnick is positioning himself against Trump’s promises of disengagement from foreign wars and repatriating manufacturing jobs.

“He can say he’s offended by Trump’s language and it sounds all nice, but really he’s opposing Donald Trump’s strongest issues, which is stopping stupid foreign wars and standing up for America’s workers,” Doherty said. “Depending on the mix, usually in a Republican primary the most conservative candidate wins. So among Ciattarelli, Steinhardt and Bramnick, I know who the liberal is, and that’s Jon Bramnick.”

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published this page in News and Politics 2020-10-23 02:51:36 -0700