SOMERSET — Jack Ciattarelli wants you to know he’s a real New Jersey guy — and he’ll throw around references to summers at the Jersey Shore to make the point.
But Gov. Phil Murphy, Ciattarelli said late Tuesday after winning the Republican nomination to face the incumbent Democrat in November, “wasn’t raised here, never went to school here, never worked here, never ran a business here. He’s somebody else. I’m you.”
“How about we elect a Jersey guy?” Ciattarelli told cheering supporters at his election-night party in Middlesex County.
It was a clear sign that Ciattarelli, 59, will try to frame the general election around who’s more devoted to the state: himself, a former assemblyman who spends weekends on Long Beach Island, or Murphy, whom he will paint as an out-of-touch, millionaire ex-Goldman Sachs executive who vacations in Europe and harbors ambitions for higher office.
Call it New Jersey identity politics.
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Murphy, who’s from Massachusetts but has lived in New Jersey for more than 20 years, dismissed Ciattarelli’s criticism Wednesday.
“I would just ask anybody who wonders about where somebody was born, ask them if they had any say over where they were born,” Murphy told reporters. “My wife and I came to New Jersey to raise our four kids. ... Probably the best decision of our lives.”
Murphy, 63, is widely seen as the early favorite to win reelection. Though some voters remained unfamiliar with him during his first two years in office, his popularity has grown thanks to broad approval of his pandemic response. And registered Democrats now outnumber Republicans in the state by a million, an advantage that has grown since New Jersey last elected a GOP governor.
Murphy would be the state’s first Democratic governor since 1977 to win a second term. A Rutgers-Eagleton survey released this week put Murphy well ahead of Ciattarelli in a general election matchup, 52% to 24%. But only 42% of poll respondents said they would definitely back Murphy, and more than three-quarters said they either don’t know who Ciattarelli is or have no opinion of him.
Some Republicans expressed relief Wednesday at Ciattarelli’s victory. The contentious GOP primary included two candidates who aligned themselves with former President Donald Trump — a political brand that would likely be toxic in a general election.
“Republicans recognize that our best chance for success is to make sure that Jack Ciattarelli has every opportunity to beat Phil Murphy in November,” said Keith Davis, who chairs the Atlantic County Republican Committee.
Davis said Ciattarelli’s skill at retail politics would win over Republicans who didn’t support him Tuesday as he focuses his campaign on issues like property taxes and the cost of running a business.
“The terrain is tough for a Republican in New Jersey, but the continued high cost of living and high taxes show that we’re not improving,” Davis said. “Historic trends dictate that we’re going to have a Republican governor this year, and I think it’s because people realize, ‘Oh yeah, this is what a Democrat does.’”
Ciattarelli, an entrepreneur who founded a medical publishing company, is campaigning with a pledge to lower taxes and address the state’s long-standing financial problems. He described himself Tuesday as a “Reagan Republican” and “Lincoln Republican,” saying he “believes in tolerance, mutual respect, and the power and beauty of diversity.”
Democratic strategist Joshua Henne said Ciattarelli’s more conservative positions, like his opposition to a minimum-wage hike, are out of step with an electorate that now broadly supports progressive policies like raising wages, gun control and taxing the rich. And Murphy has achievements on all those fronts from his first term that he can use to campaign for a second.
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“Ciattarelli can brand himself however he wants, but his views are simply out of the mainstream when it comes to what matters to New Jersey voters,” Henne said.
Ciattarelli will also have to mind the Trump supporters on his right flank. He won about 49% of the primary votes, while pro-Trump opponents Phil Rizzo and Hirsh Singh, of Linwood, combined to win about 47% — a sign that Trump voters remain a potent political force even in a state Joe Biden won convincingly last year.
“Ciattarelli couldn’t crack a decisive win over two complete clown candidates, so he should refrain from thumping his chest going into the general election against a popular Gov. Murphy and united Democratic Party,” Henne said.
Asked Tuesday if he’s concerned by how many Republicans voted for pro-Trump candidates — one of whom accused Ciattarelli of being a “false conservative” — Ciattarelli brushed off the question.
“The only numbers I’m looking at showed that we won overwhelmingly,” he said.
Murphy and his campaign are likely to continue linking Ciattarelli to Trump, as they have done for months by noting his attendance at a “Stop the Steal” rally last year and photographs of occasional maskless campaign events before the pandemic was on the wane.
Murphy on Wednesday also pushed back on Ciattarelli’s pledge to overhaul the state’s finances, noting that the three-term assemblyman “was in public service as an elected official during the time that the property tax crisis went out of control.”
“We inherited the mess that he and his colleagues created,” Murphy said. “We’re trying to fix the stuff that he and others broke.”
"(Phil Murphy) wasn't raised here, never went to school here, never worked here, never ran a business here. He's somebody else. I'm you."
Republican gubernatorial candidate