October 17, 2021

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Postcards from the edge – nj.com

Strolling along Main Street in a charming South Jersey downtown, Jack Ciattarelli sips a vanilla milkshake and spies an opportunity.

It’s late May. Medford Township. Ciattarelli, a Republican running for governor, is touring small businesses that struggled to survive the coronavirus pandemic.

Tanned and fit with salt and pepper hair, Ciattarelli mingles on the sidewalk near Girlfriends on Main, a sassy boutique where the owners promise their support. Yet he can take nothing for granted in a state with a million more Democrats than Republicans. So when an older gentleman slowly approaches, Ciattarelli stops and listens, hoping for an endorsement.

Instead, 92-year-old Ed Weil announces he’s sworn off the Republican Party “for one reason.”

“Trump!” Weil shouts, gripping his cane with his left hand as he raises his right index finger.

Ciattarelli, 59, tries redirecting, but quickly realizes Weil can’t be swayed. He trashes what’s left of his milkshake and moves to his next stop, a bar where a supporter snaps a photo with a disposable camera. Up the street, Weil — voice rising — tells me he was a lifelong Republican until Donald Trump became the face of the party.

“To me, the Republican Party at the national level is the party of lunatics, liars, tax cheats, racists,” says Weil, a former college professor.

“I am looking forward to seeing Trump in an orange suit, being marched off.”

Greetings from the political black hole where New Jersey Republicans currently reside.

After more than a century of the political pendulum swinging back and forth in the Garden State, an avowed progressive occupies the governor’s mansion, Democrats hold a vice grip on the Legislature and Republicans cling to just two of the state’s 12 congressional seats. The GOP hasn’t won a U.S. Senate race here since the early days of disco or a presidential election since the year before Taylor Swift was born.

Worse yet, the affluent suburbs have turned their backs on the party. Republican elders Tom Kean and Christine Todd Whitman — former two-term governors — are losing hope. And even former Gov. Chris Christie, an optimist about the state party’s future, acknowledges that November’s gubernatorial election is Democratic incumbent Phil Murphy’s to lose.

“We’re down,” Kean says with a heavy sigh. “No question about it. We have a long way to go.”

Ed Weil, left, gives Jack Ciattarelli, the Republican candidate for governor, a piece of his mind as Ciattarelli makes campaign stops on Main Street in Medford. Patti Sapone | NJ Advance Media

It’s a stark contrast to Republican prospects nationwide. The party credibly believes it is one election away from retaking Congress, while GOP-led state houses in the South and Midwest are advancing their anti-liberal agenda, including restrictions on abortion, voting and teaching about racism in public schools.

But many New Jersey Republicans tell me they feel nowhere close to achieving influence, still staggering from a Trump-induced spiral that sank the party to a modern-day rock bottom.

Outspent, outnumbered roughly 2.6 million to 1.5 million in registered voters and decidedly out of power, the GOP in a once-purple state now grapples with existential questions.

Can a state party that historically thrives when it’s in the political center really rise from the ashes in the polarizing age of Trump?

Or has fiercely independent and notoriously unforgiving New Jersey turned forever blue?

“The impression that people have of the Republican Party is not favorable,” Kean says. “You put the party in front of them, and people aren’t giving them a chance.”

To get a glimpse into the future of the Grand Old Party, I spent three months interviewing more than two dozen New Jersey Republicans, including party leaders, ex-governors, strategists and voters of all ages. Despite obligatory optimism, the view from the trenches looks just as dire.

New Jersey Republicans are divided on exactly what went wrong, and — like their national counterparts — remain torn over loyalty to Trump.

Some say a reckoning is necessary to make the party more appealing and inclusive, though it remains unclear if that’s even possible with a national agenda so misaligned with winning in New Jersey. Other unwavering insiders believe rumors of the GOP’s demise are merely liberal arrogance and that the pendulum will swing back once again.

“The future of the party is strong,” says Christie, the only Republican on the planet to win a statewide election in New Jersey in the past 24 years, “because we’re going to put forward the type of people, the type of ideas, that will attract support.”

But when I question this optimism, Christie practically pops the party’s own bubble.

“You’d have to say that right now if Gov. Murphy does not get reelected in as blue a state as New Jersey has become from a registration perspective, that he’s going to be seen as one of the biggest failures in the Democratic Party in recent history,” he says.

And at least one long-time New Jersey Republican conjures up a much more apocalyptic vision, one that makes New Jersey Republicans seem akin to the viral meme of a dog calmly drinking coffee as his house goes up in flames.

“The future is not bright,” says Carl Golden, who worked for two Republican governors and voted for Richard Nixon three times. “When you look at it in its totality, this is about as safe a Democratic state as there is in the country.”

Those were the days for the GOP: Hoboken Mayor Anthony Russo is seen with Gov. Christine Todd Whitman at a rally in 1997 in front of the Democrats for Whitman headquarters on Washington St. in Hoboken.  Amanda Brown | For NJ Advance Media

I. The downfall

Once upon a time, in a world before Oath Keepers, Tea Partiers or even Fox News, Republicans here had it all.

Their revolt swept Trenton on a chilly Tuesday in November 1991, when voters rejected Democratic Gov. Jim Florio’s infamous tax hikes — sales tax, income tax, you name it — by flipping 30 seats in the state Legislature and handing the GOP a veto-proof majority.

Two years later, moderate Republican Christine Todd Whitman delivered the knockout punch, ousting Florio from office. For the first time in 20 years, Republicans had seized total control of the Garden State government, even as the state was about to become reliably blue in presidential races.

They slashed taxes. Preserved farmland. And passed a law allowing charter schools to open in New Jersey.

The mighty Democrats?

“Irrelevant,” recalls state Sen. Loretta Weinberg, D-Bergen, who was just starting out in the state Assembly. “We really didn’t count. We didn’t have enough votes to do anything.”

New Jersey Republicans gained on the Democrats in voter registration during Whitman’s tenure and trailed by less than 300,000 members by the 2001 general election.

“It was just a totally different time,” Whitman remembers, “and different party.”

Then it all came crashing down — a seismic turnabout that happened within eight years, so quickly many Republicans never even noticed the ground shifting beneath their feet.

Indeed, Trump might be the pinata for all the current ills of the party in New Jersey. But the former reality television star can’t be blamed for everything. The state party’s decline began well before his meteoric national rise. It’s a story of shifting political winds, changing demographics, gerrymandering and scandalous self-inflicted wounds.

By the time Whitman left office, Newt Gingrich’s burn-it-to-the-ground approach to political discourse had already planted the seeds for the tenor of the national GOP we know today. And Republicans here were about to suffer a crushing blow.

In mandatory redistricting in 2001, the nonpartisan deciding member of the state commission chose the Democratic Party’s proposed legislative map, paving the way for Democrats to immediately flip the state Assembly and break even in the Senate.

That was just the beginning.

Seven years later, Barack Obama’s primary election showdown with Hillary Clinton spurred a surge in voter registration for Democrats, pushing their advantage over Republicans to more than 700,000 by the fall of 2008.

Meanwhile, New Jersey was also undergoing a demographic transformation that made it more diverse and pushed its politics further to the left. After decades of unaffiliated voters representing more than 50% of the state, Democrats today claim 39.4% of voters, followed by 36.4% who are unaffiliated and just 22.9% who are Republicans.

The most meaningful shift came in New Jersey’s suburban communities, which ultimately decide nearly every statewide election. Once the beating-heart of the state’s Republican Party, they’ve turned alarmingly blue as Democrats moved in from New York City and beyond. For 40 years, Somerset County — as suburban as suburban New Jersey gets — was a Republican stronghold. In 2020, Democrats took control of every countywide office.

“We used to say things like ‘New Jersey is a purple state’ or ‘New Jersey is a state that may be voting Democratic, but that doesn’t make it blue.’ You can’t say those things anymore,” said Micah Rasmussen, the director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University. “It’s really difficult to think about a way in which Republicans can overcome that.”

Even Christie’s political stardom — he carried the majority of women and Hispanic voters in winning his second term in 2013 — was almost worthless to the rest of the party after Democrats again won the legislative map in the 2011 redistricting cycle.

“When the person at the top of the ticket wins 60% of the vote and there’s not one pickup in the state Legislature, I think that shows you that the map is pretty gerrymandered,” Christie tells me, still palpably angry a decade later.

The last straw? Gov. Chris Christie, right, and his wife Mary Pat enjoy a picture perfect Sunday afternoon at the beach with their children and friends in July 2017 at Island Beach State Park. The beach was closed to the public due to a state government shutdown in the scandal that became known as Beachgate. Andrew Mills | NJ Advance Media

You know what happened next?

Bridgegate.

Beachgate.

Christie’s 15% approval rating.

Trump.

Trump.

More Trump.

Kean’s “politics of inclusion” was replaced with Trump’s politics of “lock her up!”

“Donald Trump did change things, and for the worse, for Republicans in New Jersey,” says Mike DuHaime, a GOP strategist and former chief political advisor to Christie. “I don’t think anybody can look at election results and not agree.”

Republicans in the state’s congressional delegation — split 6-6 as recently as 2016 — were nearly obliterated in the 2018 midterm elections, with Democrats seizing an 11-1 majority. Yet many Republicans on the ground remain fiercely loyal to Trump, convinced he is the party’s only savior.

New Jersey is home to the renegade gym owner who spoke at the Conservative Political Action Conference. More than a dozen people charged in the Jan. 6 Capitol invasion. And a woman who went to court to win the legal right to keep three “F— Biden” signs on her fence in defiance of a local ordinance banning profanity.

On primary election day in June, a steady stream of Republicans arrive to vote at a fire station in Southampton, a sprawling township of about 10,000 people in the heart of Burlington County. I come expecting to talk about Ciattarelli. Voters are focused on another politician entirely.

“We want Trump back,” resident Chris Reynolds says after casting his vote.

I ask Elizabeth Cavallaro why she came out to vote. She immediately jumps to Trump, who earned nearly 1.9 million votes in New Jersey in 2020.

“I’m sick of the RINOs,” she tells me, her voice dripping with disdain, referring to Republicans In Name Only, Trump’s disparaging term for moderates who dare challenge him. “I’m sick of what the Republican Party did to Donald Trump. They were his downfall.”

Cavallaro, with “very limited knowledge of any of the candidates,” voted for Baptist pastor Phil Rizzo because she is pro-life, she says. She also liked that Rizzo had been photographed with Trump.

“This is the new Republican Party,” Cavallaro tells me. “But if they don’t embrace it, it’s just going to be handing it to this liberal agenda … that will be the Republicans if they don’t go with whatever Trump is endorsing.”

Trump undoubtedly energized the party base here and nationwide. But when it comes to winning elections, Trump led New Jersey Republicans to a new low, Whitman argues.

“We’re not a Trump state,” she says forcefully. “We’re just not.”

President Donald Trump speaks with reporters before boarding Air Force One in 2019 at Morristown Municipal Airport. Trump rallied Republicans nationwide during his meteoric rise, but left behind a minefield for the New Jersey GOP to navigate. Associated Press

II. The opportunity

You pay a steep price these days for being a young Republican in New Jersey.

Will Atkins knows this all too well.

The rising high school junior, a cross country runner with wavy brown hair, says he has lost friends and Instagram followers over his political views. As state chair of the New Jersey High School Republicans, he sees just how much conservative teens fear social rejection — and for good reason.

Young people in New Jersey are “quite liberal,” says Atkins, 16, of Bridgewater.

He isn’t.

“I love Trump. I love what he did as president. I love what he accomplished for our party,” Atkins says.

But his eyes are wide open when it comes to the political future of New Jersey — a Trump-or-die strategy, he says, is doomed to fail with his generation.

“We are a state that is becoming consistently more blue, and we are going way bluer than we have in previous years,” Atkins tells me. “We have to connect with a lot of independents. We can’t just pander to the Republican base if we want to be winning elections.”

In normal times, a minority party would do well to heed Atkins’ advice.

These are not normal times. Make an appeal to moderates? You piss off the Trumpers. Play to the Trump crowd? You’re toast with the independents. Rinse and repeat into oblivion.

So are Republicans at risk of becoming a permanent minority party, as influential as, say, the Democrats in Oklahoma or Utah? State party leaders bristle at the mere suggestion.

“The Republican Party in New Jersey has been left for dead a number of times,” says Bill Palatucci, a veteran GOP strategist and national committee member.

“I have seen this movie a couple of times. And the ending can surprise people.”

On paper, the next 16 months are an opportunity, and Republicans insist there’s a scenario where they bounce back sooner than anyone outside the party can imagine.

Murphy and the entire state Legislature is up for re-election in November. Redistricting looms the following year. And the 2022 midterms give Republicans a chance to take back New Jersey congressional seats in an election without Trump on the ballot.

But the road ahead is filled with political landmines. In order to succeed, Republicans must survive a gauntlet of challenges, according to the party’s own members.

There’s the Trump problem. The map problem. The diversity problem. The fundraising deficit. The voter registration deficit. So many issues, so interconnected, that it’s hard to identify a quick fix unless Democrats implode.

“I am not trying to be a doom-and-gloom type person, but it is very hard to find a silver lining in this cloud,” says Golden, who served as a spokesman for both Whitman and Kean.

Democrats control the state Senate, 25-15, and the state Assembly, 52-28, after Republicans finally picked up three legislative seats in 2019. Nobody I spoke with on either side expects significant Republican pickups until after redistricting.

Democratic nominees spent $46 million on their campaigns in New Jersey’s 2020 U.S. Senate race and the 12 House races. The Republicans? Just $16 million. The Democrats are also outpacing Republicans in money raised so far for the general election this fall.

Jack Ciattarelli, the Republican candidate for governor, holding court during a campaign stop on Main Street in Medford. He must walk a political tightrope, trying to win over independents while somehow appeasing both moderate and Trump Republicans. Patti Sapone | NJ Advance Media

Ciattarelli, meanwhile, was declared a 26-point underdog against Murphy on the same day he won the Republican primary. More than half the state doesn’t even know who he is, according to a Rutgers-Eagleton Poll, leaving little confidence in his campaign outside the party.

Murphy coasted to victory in his 2017 race against Christie’s Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno (she has since left the party, reportedly over bitter in-fighting). And Trump’s pointed attempts to win over white voters without college degrees — “I love the uneducated,” he once said — have only backfired here in one of America’s most diverse and highly educated states.

Put it this way: When Joe Biden wins Morris County, you know the Republican Party has a problem.

“If they can’t win in the suburbs, where are they going to win?” Rasmussen asks.

Ciattarelli has shouldered the brunt of that burden, a walking microcosm for the juggling act of trying to appeal to all sides. He’s essentially navigating a world where the man Republicans love most just might be killing the party in Ciattarelli’s own backyard.

A former state lawmaker who once called Trump a “charlatan” unfit for office, Ciattarelli was an old-school New Jersey moderate. Then he spoke at a “Stop The Steal” rally last fall and gradually warmed to Trump’s policies — all part of walking the tightrope of a primary with opponents who tried to turn the race into a Trump loyalty test. (Ciattarelli has since claimed he wasn’t aware of the rally’s theme and that it “turned into something else” after he arrived.)

“New Jersey Republicans have always had their own unique brand,” Ciattarelli tells me during an interview in which he sounds heavily scripted but likely palatable to moderate Democrats. “For us to be successful, we need to get back to that. And that’s what my candidacy is all about.”

Except it didn’t help when the Bergen County Republican Party supported Oath Keeper Ed Durfee — who has reportedly said he helped with radio security while some associates allegedly stormed the U.S. Capitol — for a dead-on-arrival state Assembly campaign in a Democratic district. Or when Ciattarelli spoke at a gun shop and said the state shouldn’t be “teaching sodomy in sixth grade” in one breathe and called for a roll back on LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum in the next.

He later claimed his two separate thoughts were being conflated by Democrats. But the damage was already done.

Murphy’s campaign seized on those incidents, among others, to tie Ciattarelli to Trump and everything else that might make moderate voters squeamish. And Ciattarelli hasn’t moved any further center since winning the primary, though he did choose a moderate woman, former state lawmaker Diane Allen, as his running mate.

“The question New Jerseyans need an answer to is how far is Ciattarelli willing to go to placate the far-right?” Murphy’s campaign says in one attack. “He’s apparently fine being on the ballot with an Oath Keeper, so how about a Proud Boy? Or a KKK member? Or a neo-Nazi?”

As long as Trump looms over the party, there simply aren’t enough rural red pockets for anyone associated with the ex-president to win a statewide race, according to Rasmussen.

“It’s a nightmare scenario,” he says. “He is just going to put Republicans in that losing box every single time.”

Drag queen Zenon TeaVee is introduced to the crowd in the Mendham Township Elementary School gym. She read stories and sang and danced with kids during a Pride event.  Aristide Economopoulos | NJ Advance Media

III. The long game

It’s Friday night in the hills of Mendham Township, and neighborhood children are gathered around a drag queen.

“I’m going to talk to you about pronouns,” says Zenon TeaVee, wearing a blonde wing, pearl necklace, black heels and a green and white dress.

TeaVee — whose own preferred pronouns are she/her — is the guest of honor at the first township-sponsored Pride Month event, which includes arts and crafts, a coming of age film about a gay teenager and the drag queen story hour.

In a community once dominated by conservatives, TeaVee twirls to a song from the hit movie “Frozen” in front of about 100 people. Smiling from the back of the elementary school gymnasium is Republican Sarah Neibart, the township’s millennial mayor.

“I have a lot of friends that are Democrats and they always say to me, like, ‘Sarah, you are a different type of Republican,’” Neibart, 28, told me a day earlier. “I say, ‘No, this is the type of Republican I am accustomed to.”

Neibart won’t be mistaken for a Democrat. The blonde volunteer firefighter says her views on taxes and government are influenced by Libertarian leanings. But her perspective on why Republicans are not doomed in New Jersey centers on one of two major themes I heard time and again in interviews.

The first premise for a Republican renaissance is voters will get tired of Democrats, or the economy will tank, or a liberal governor will get caught in a scandal. This pattern is historically accurate — voters were so furious with Florio they hanged him in effigy — but involves no self-reflection, no self-improvement and really no work at all.

“People pronounce the Republican Party dead over and over again in New Jersey,” says state Sen. Declan O’Scanlon, R-Monmouth, “and somehow the Democrats screw up enough and Republicans are steadfast enough that we claw our way back.”

The second premise, which Neibart subscribes to, is that Republicans here will adapt and build a new, more inclusive coalition.

“These are things the Republican Party has to have real conversations about,” she tells me. “We have unfortunately lost, in some districts and some areas, the suburban women. So how do we get them again involved in our party? It might be that now that President Trump is no longer president, there might be an opening for that.”

Mendham Mayor Sarah Neibart, right, introduces Drag Queen Zenon TeaVee to the crowd during the township’s first Pride event. Aristide Economopoulos | NJ Advance Media

Republicans I interviewed consistently say they need to become the “big tent” party once again. They need more women. More young people. More immigrants and minority voters. Maybe even labor unions.

“The bottom line is politics are about addition, not subtraction,” says Tayfun Selen, a Turkish immigrant and Morris County commissioner. “We need to add, not subtract people.”

The math is clear. Rik Mehta, the party’s 2020 sacrificial lamb candidate for U.S. Senate, earned 1.8 million votes, meaning he picked up about 400,000 votes from outside the party if every single registered Republican cast a ballot.

The problem? He still lost to Sen. Cory Booker by 700,000 votes, about 16 percentage points.

“We need to do better to create cohesion, to create that big tent,” Mehta, the son of an Indian immigrant, tells me. “The focus can’t be consumed by any particular leader or politician. The focus has to be on policy and what we are going to do to make the lives of people we serve better.”

Several Republicans told me building a more inclusive GOP starts with showing voters the party reflects the diversity of the state.

The party went almost two decades without a Black member of the state Legislature before Assemblyman Antwan McClellan, R-Cape May, took office in 2020. Of the 14 Republicans in the state Senate today, only two are women (the 15th GOP seat is vacant). In the Assembly, 21 of the 28 Republicans are men.

The roadmap for a “big tent” party has always been there, Kean says. In the 1980s, he worked closely with the mayors of New Jersey’s big cities. He championed building an arts center in Newark, a science center in Jersey City and an aquarium in Camden. He also divested the state’s public pension funds from apartheid South Africa, a sign of his support for the greater Black community.

Kean carried 60% of the Black vote and won all but three towns in the state when he ran for re-election in 1985, earning the biggest landslide in state history.

“People ask me, ‘How did you carry the African American vote?’” Kean says. “I included them.”

But that’s been easier said than done. And the future of the New Jersey Republican Party might be dictated by what happens thousands of miles away, political analysts said.

The national Republican Party is not shaping its agenda based on what works in New Jersey.

It’s making decisions about what works in Texas or Florida or Ohio.

“I think national-level politics is so intertwined with local- and state-level politics, it is really hard for any citizen of any state to separate the two,” says Ashley Koning, director of the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling at Rutgers University.

The way Weinberg sees it, the GOP dug its own hole. What did Republicans think would happen in blue states when their president endorsed racism and conspiracy theories, challenged election results without evidence and condoned dressing up in costume to storm the nation’s Capitol, she asks?

“The Republicans have to come to terms with what they stand for and who their leadership is,” Weinberg says. “And until they do that, they are going to be a minority party in New Jersey.”

As bleak as the outlook might seem now, there is still no question the Democratic dominance here will eventually end, says Ben Dworkin, director of Rowan University’s Institute for Public Policy and Citizenship. The pendulum will swing back, he assures. It’s only a question of how long it takes.

“No student of history will say this will go forever,” Dworkin cautions, a warning similar to the one Christie gave me at the end of our conversation.

That doesn’t make the wait any easier for Republicans like Scott Bradley, though.

The 29-year-old hospital supervisor is the final voter I meet in Southampton. He’s engaged and planning to raise a family not far from his childhood home in the township.

Bradley says he is a proud Republican who is pro-Second Amendment and pro-constitutionalist and votes in every election, even local ones.

But he’s initially reluctant to tell me his last name because he’s been verbally abused for his politics, he says, especially when he told Democratic friends he voted for Trump.

It would be different, Bradley tells me, if he lived in Texas, Florida or North Carolina. He wouldn’t worry about the ramifications of sharing his conservative views.

But in blue Jersey?

“It’s an absolute struggle to be Republican in this state, because everybody’s against you,” Bradley says.

“Well, that’s how it feels anyway.”

Jack Ciattarelli, the Republican candidate for governor, has his work cut out for him as the New Jersey GOP contemplates its future.  Patti Sapone | NJ Advance Media

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Adam Clark may be reached at [email protected]. Have a news tip or a story idea about New Jersey schools? Send it here.