Christie sitting out New Jersey governor’s race — and no one’s complaining

 Politico

04/08/2021 

Portrait photos of Jack Ciattarelli (left) and Chris Christie. 

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Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is keeping a busy schedule these days.

He also recently hosted Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) in a public discussion, headlined a fundraiser for a member of Congress from Long Island, had dinner with Puerto Rico’s resident commissioner and, back in New Jersey, joined a fundraiser for Republican state senator.

There’s one thing Christie — who, after his unsuccessful 2016 run for president was one of the first mainstream Republican endorsers of Donald Trump — hasn’t done: Aided the gubernatorial candidacy of Jack Ciattarelli, the frontrunner for the GOP nomination to take on Christie’s successor, Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy, in November.

That’s just fine with the Ciattarelli campaign, which has neither heard from Christie nor reached out to him. Ciattarelli’s people don’t view the former governor as an asset, especially since he left office as the most unpopular New Jersey executive since the advent of polling, with his approval rating reaching a nadir of 14 percent near the end of his second term.

Ciattarelli, a former member of the General Assembly, was also one of the few Republicans in New Jersey to openly criticize Christie when he was in office.

“There’s no surprise that the governor and Jack don’t have a close relationship,” Bill Palatucci, a friend and longtime adviser to Christie, said in an interview. “First of all, Jack didn’t serve in the Legislature all that long and Jack wasn’t a supporter of all of the governor’s initiatives and policies."

Christie, now a talking head on ABC News and a lawyer in private practice, did not respond to a request for comment.

Palatucci said there’s no personal dislike between the former governor and Ciattarelli and he believes Christie would be willing to help — if called upon.

“I know there’s no animus between the two. They were just on different wavelengths on a number of important policy issues,” he said.

Though Ciattarelli will need a lot of help to defeat Murphy, who remains popular among New Jersey voters, there are historical reasons to think he has a chance. New Jersey is a deep blue state in federal elections, but has elected numerous Republicans for governor in recent decades. In fact, New Jerseyans haven’t reelected a Democratic governor since 1977.

Murphy appears to be in a good position to break that trend, despite several scandals during his first term and New Jersey having the worst coronavirus death rate in the country — especially at nursing homes. The state is one of just two with a gubernatorial election in 2021, not counting California’s now-likely recall, and the only one with an incumbent on the ballot.

There‘s been no public polling so far of a head-to-head match-up between Ciattarelli and Murphy. The governor’s approval rating, though down from the 70s during the height of the pandemic a year ago, stands at 58 percent, according to a Stockton University poll release last month.

As a multimillionaire, former Goldman Sachs executive and current finance chair of the Democratic Governors Association, Murphy will have no trouble raising money, both directly for his campaign — which is limited to what it can raise and spend by the state’s public campaign finance program — and from outside groups.

Fundraising hasn’t been Ciattarelli’s strong point. It took him about six months from when he kicked off his campaign in January 2020 to raise the $490,000 necessary to qualify for public campaign financing. By the end of 2020, he had raised around $1 million, not including two-for-one matching funds from the state. Murphy, who officially declared on Oct. 1 that he was seeking reelection, raised $3.5 million by the end of the year. Ciattarelli has received about $2.1 million in matching funds thus far compared to Murphy’s $4.1 million.

Few elected Republicans in New Jersey were as critical of Christie during his eight years in office as Ciattarellli, as the governor demanded lockstep devotion from his party’s minority caucus in the Legislature, sometimes to their political detriment.

Ciattarelli voted several times to override Christie’s vetoes, including on two gun control bills that were largely uncontroversial in New Jersey but seen as potentially detrimental to the former governor’s planned 2016 presidential run.

But like most like most elected Republicans in New Jersey, Ciattarelli endorsed Christie for president. After Christie dropped out of the race and endorsed Trump, however, Ciattarelli said that if Christie continued to spend so much of his time outside of New Jersey on the campaign trail, he should consider resigning.

Ciattarelli’s past criticism of Christie hasn’t stopped Democrats from trying to link the two. Since February, Murphy’s campaign has issued at least nine statements about Ciattarelli that mention Christie.

"Of course [former] Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli doesn't want us to remember his time as one of Chris Christie's most reliable Republican rubber stamps in Trenton. As a member of the Legislature, the Assemblyman voted in lockstep with the Christie agenda against funding for women's health care, increasing the minimum wage, and common sense gun safety laws,” Murphy spokesperson Jerrel Harvey said in a statement.

“Even as he attempts to distance himself from the most unpopular politician in state history, a Ciattarelli administration would be nothing more than a third term of Chris Christie's out-of-touch policies and wrong-headed priorities that New Jersey can't afford to go back to," Harvey said.

Christie and Ciattarelli did wind up on the same side of an internal GOP squabble in December, when the Ciattarelli camp supported a Christie ally, former U.S. Senate candidate Bob Hugin, for Republican state chair over Michael Lavery, an attorney who had briefly served as chair in 2017. It was an alliance of convenience, however. Lavery, who narrowly won the contest, was allied with Ciattarelli's then-main primary rival, former state Chair Doug Steinhardt, and Ciattarelli's backers didn't want an ally of his rival in charge of the state party during the primary.

Steinhardt, who had tied his campaign closely to then-president Trump, dropped out of the race shortly after the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

A Democratic consultant, Joshua Henne, also used Christie to needle Ciattarelli by issuing an April Fool’s Day press release purporting to be a Christie endorsement of the gubernatorial candidate.

“For the next year, whenever people hear Jack Ciattarelli’s name, they’ll think of Chris Christie. In fact, you can even start calling him Jack Christiarelli,” the press release quoted the fake Christie as saying.

Ciattarelli’s campaign declined to comment on its decision not to seek help from Christie for this article. But his consultant, Chris Russell, made the campaign’s feelings’ about Christie clear in a tweet responding to the April Fool’s Joke.

“Not April Fool’s: @Jack4NJ was tougher on Gov Christie over a statehouse renovation than @GovMurphy has been on Cuomo, Al Alvarez, and Marcus Hicks — combined — on alleged sexual assaults and harassment. Let that sink in,” Russell, tweeted, referring to the Democratic New York governor, a former Murphy staffer accused of sexual assault during Murphy’s 2017 campaign and New Jersey’s current corrections commissioner, embattled over prisoner abuse at the state’s only prison for women.

Not everyone thinks it’s smart for Ciattarelli to distance himself from Christie.

Steve Lonegan, a conservative New Jersey activist who frequently clashed with Christie and unsuccessfully sought the Republican nomination against him in 2009, said Ciattarelli should consider seeking Christie’s help. Christie is a prolific fundraiser, he noted, and could help Ciattarelli on that front.

“Popularity nor unpopularity is transportable,” Lonegan said. “People aren’t going to vote against Jack Ciattarelli because Chris Christie’s helping him.”

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published this page in News and Politics 2021-04-09 02:44:31 -0700