NJ Republicans wrestle with devotion to Trump in primary

FILE - Privacy blinds set up on a table at the Minneapolis Early Vote Center on January 17, 2020 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)

New Jersey Republicans will decide Tuesday whether their standard-bearer to take on Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy will be a strong supporter of Donald Trump or a well-funded establishment-backed candidate who hardly mentions the former president.

Polls open at 6 a.m. and close at 8 p.m. in primaries for governor and the state Legislature, which has every member of both houses up for election this year.

Murphy is running unopposed in the Democratic primary, but the GOP is sorting out how it will move forward in the post-Trump era in a four-way race.

New Jersey and Virginia are the only two states electing governors this year. The election is a test of how voters view Murphy's handling of the coronavirus pandemic, as well as an early litmus test of President Joe Biden's performance and how national politics are playing out among voters.

Here's a closer look at top races in Tuesday's election, which — unlike last year — will include in-person machine voting.


Jack Ciattarelli, a former Assembly member and small business founder, has emerged as the front-runner. He has the most cash, qualified for public matching funds and carries the support from county party leaders, which means he'll have favorable ballot positions. He ran unsuccessfully four years ago as a strong critic of Gov. Chris Christie, losing the primary to then-Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno. He was tepid about Trump four years ago.

But his focus on attacking Murphy, over supporting for the former president, drew a pair of Trump defenders into the race. Hudson County pastor and former real estate developer Phil Rizzo and Atlantic County engineer Hirsh Singh are each casting themselves as Trump's man in New Jersey. Rizzo is new to politics, but Singh has run in and lost elections before, including the Republican gubernatorial primary four years ago.

Murphy's handling of the pandemic has been a galvanizing issue for the GOP, though, providing them with a common opponent.

Also on the ballot is Brian Levine, a former Somerset County official, who is running in part on keeping businesses from leaving the state. Levine has told election law enforcement officials that he plans to raise less than $5,800, a fraction of the more roughly $6.9 million Ciattarelli has raised.


Murphy has no Democratic opposition on the ballot. The primary comes at a high water mark for Democrats, who have seen their registration advantage over Republicans climb to more than 1 million. He also has gotten good grades from voters for his handling of the pandemic, according to public surveys.

Nevertheless, Republicans have hammered him for keeping mask and distancing mandates in place for what they have said is too long and for more than 8,000 deaths at long-term care facilities.

Murphy has also delivered on several key campaign promises that were popular, especially among Democratic voters: raising taxes on people earning more than $1 million a year; boosting funding to Planned Parenthood, signing legislation to legalize recreational marijuana and clear cannabis-related criminal records and increasing funding for the public pension and school aid.


Democratic control the Legislature is on the ballot this, fall, but in Tuesday's primary a handful of intraparty races are grabbing attention. Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg's retirement in Bergen County's 37th District has sparked a Democratic primary battle between her two Assembly running mates: Gordon Johnson and Valerie Vainieri Huttle.

In southern New Jersey, Republican Sen. Chris Brown's decision not to run for reelection has led to a primary between the county party-backed Vince Polistina and Seth Grossman, who ran unsuccessfully in 2018 for Congress against as an outspoken backer of Trump.