Campaign Kickoff: Five factors shaping NJ Governor’s Race 2021

By Alan Steinberg | December 10, 2020

Insider NJ

Phil Murphy


Every governor’s race in New Jersey is shaped by certain unique factors, which influence both the conduct and the outcome of the campaign.  In New Jersey Campaign 2021, these factors all point to a comfortable victory for incumbent Democratic Governor Phil Murphy, quite possibly a landslide.

The Republican primary will be a contest between former Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli (R-Somerset) and NJGOP Chair Doug Steinhardt.  Ciattarelli has a decided edge over Steinhardt, due to four circumstances:

1) Ciattarelli is the more charismatic candidate and the better communicator of the two;

2) He is better known to primary voters, due to his 2017 GOP primary campaign for governor;

3) His state legislative experience gives him a greater knowledge and familiarity with state issues than Steinhardt; and

4) He is likely to have a substantial fundraising advantage.

In the general election, there are five factors, two of which are positive Murphy factors, two of which are negative factors pertaining to each GOP candidate, and one of which is a negative factor pertaining to the NJGOP.

The first pro-Murphy factor is the positive enhancement of his image created by the television commercials produced by non-campaign advocacy organizations on his behalf.  I described these commercials in my column, “The Power of Television: Can Phil Murphy Campaign 2021 Replicate Tom Kean Campaign 1985?”

The next positive Murphy factor is his handling of the Coronavirus crisis.  There is nothing in a candidate’s record that can benefit him or her more than skillful crisis management.  While Republicans will dispute this, the electorate on the whole perceives Murphy as having most successfully managed the Pandemic.

The negative GOP factor is the dismal image of the Republican brand in the New Jersey African-American community.  This was significantly worsened by the lawsuit on behalf of the NJGOP filed by Steinhardt in his capacity as NJGOP State Committee Chair to invalidate Governor Murphy’s Vote-by-Mail Executive Order, a plan most highly popular in the New Jersey African-American community.

As the lawsuit was filed by Steinhardt and not Ciattarelli, this would have a far more deleterious impact on Steinhardt as a Republican gubernatorial nominee rather than Ciattarelli.

The first negative personal factor affecting Ciattarelli and Steinhardt is the inability thus far of both candidates to develop a compelling message warranting Murphy’s defeat.  This may change in due course, but as shown by the polls thus far, neither prospective GOP nominee has given Independent voters a persuasive reason to oust Murphy.

The final of the five factors is the literal elephant in the room: Donald Trump.  I have written at length about his incompetence, racism, misogyny, bigotry, and anti-science agenda.  It was his gross criminal negligence (a phrase I coined) on the Coronavirus, however, that will undoubtedly result in the Trump name forevermore living in infamy in New Jersey.

Doug Steinhardt has been one of America’s most fervent Trumpist acolytes.  Because of his slavish loyalty to the Donald, he has as much chance of defeating Phil Murphy as I have of being elected Mayor of Damascus.

The Trump albatross weighs slightly lighter on the shoulders of Jack Ciattarelli.

In his 2017 primary campaign for the NJGOP gubernatorial nomination, Ciattarelli explicitly and emphatically repudiated Trump, describing him as unfit for the White House, “a charlatan who is out of step with the Party of Lincoln and is embarrassing the nation.”  For Campaign 2021, however, he obviously felt that he could not win the GOP primary if he maintained his anti-Trump position.  Accordingly, he unenthusiastically endorsed Trump for reelection, while remaining silent on individual Trump issues.

Jack’s flip-flopping on Trump will not help him vis-a-vis Murphy.  He will still be subject to a relentless damaging television commercial attack from the Governor, emphasizing both his 2020 endorsement of Trump and his flip-flopping.

The effect of the Murphy attack on Ciattarelli may ironically be somewhat mitigated by a Steinhardt television assault on Ciattarelli during the primary, contending that Jack is, at heart, anti-Trump.  This may help Jack retain Independent voters whom he might otherwise lose because of his 2020 endorsement of the Donald.

Nevertheless, the continued presence of Trump and Trumpism on the national political scene makes one wonder why anybody would actually seek a seemingly valueless New Jersey Republican gubernatorial nomination.


Alan Steinberg served as Regional Administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of former President George W. Bush and as Executive Director of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission.

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published this page in News and Politics 2020-12-11 03:02:41 -0800