Three weeks after Joe Biden won the presidential election, Jack Ciattarelli, the Republican candidate for governor, spoke at a rally organized under the banner, “Stop the Steal.”
It may be remembered as his fatal mistake. Because there is video, and Gov. Phil Murphy’s campaign is using it to pound Ciattarelli over the head, to link him to Donald Trump and his most unhinged followers. And Ciattarelli is making it worse by claiming that he had no idea the rally was organized for that purpose.
“I would never have attended a Stop the Steal rally,” he says.
I don’t want to call that a lie, but there are 10 reasons not to believe it. The rally was advertised as “Stop the Steal” both online and in glossy fliers, with a photo featuring Ciattarelli as one of the speakers.
He didn’t see that? No one on his staff saw that?
The crowd that day was full of posters calling the election fraudulent, including a big “Stop the Steal” sign held just a few feet behind Ciattarelli as he spoke. But he didn’t see any of that either, his campaign says.
One of the men in the crowd wore a jacket made of a Confederate flag. He was in front of Ciattarelli, not behind. But no, Ciattarelli didn’t see that either.
And at the time of this rally, Ciattarelli was refusing to acknowledge Biden’s win. That didn’t come for several more weeks.
So, could all his denials be true? In theory, perhaps, but the chances are beyond remote, like finding a speck of dust in the vast universe.
Ciattarelli declined to discuss this. His campaign strategist, Chris Russell, said many of the fraud posters came out late, after Ciattarelli had left. As for the poster a few feet behind him, “The guy came up from behind and he didn’t see it,” Russell says.
Granted, politicians can’t control what posters go up in a crowd. When Murphy marched in the George Floyd protests, some marchers held signs saying “Defund the Police” — while Murphy himself says he opposes that policy.
But Murphy never attended a rally intended to promote defunding the police. And the chances he’d say nothing about that Confederate flag? Remote.
I asked Patrick Murray, who runs the Monmouth University Poll, if this is likely to hurt Ciattarelli in November, given that Murphy is already running ads with an ominous voice-over.
First, he depressed me by saying that nobody cares anymore that politicians lie. We’ve defined that deviancy down. “Par for the course,” Murray says. “The lying is basically immaterial.”
But if the ad fortifies Ciattarelli’s ties to Trump in the minds of voters, that could turn a lopsided race into a rout for Murphy, he said.
“When we polled this race last month, we didn’t see evidence that people thought Ciattarelli was out of step with the state, or was too Trump, and still Murphy was ahead by 16 points,” Murray says. “There is no question that if voters see Ciattarelli as tied to Trump, it’s not going to help.”
Republicans are hoping that voters will cast their ballots based on New Jersey issues, like high taxes and Murphy’s stumbles during the pandemic – not on a candidate’s attitude towards Trump.
“Murphy’s job is to use the words ‘Donald Trump’ as an incantation, as if the mere mention is a secret potion that will guarantee him victory,” says GOP Sen. Joe Pennacchio, R-Morris. “If I were Jack, I’d say 10,000 nursing home dead.”
For the record, the state Department of Health puts the number at 8,505.
To me, the rally is a big deal. Those were scary days for our democracy, and Ciattarelli failed the test of character. Even if his denials are true, he was late to acknowledge Biden’s win, or Trump’s poisonous role on Jan. 6. He was dancing.
Not all Republicans were so craven. Former Gov. Chris Christie acknowledged Biden’s win immediately and said Trump should be impeached over his role in the Jan. 6 riot. The GOP leader in the state Assembly, Jon Bramnick, R-Union, was unequivocal as well. They, at least, seem to know that Republicans in New Jersey make up only 22 percent of all voters.
“I don’t know what Jack did at the rally, all I know is Day One I said this election as fair and square and we should stop this nonsense,” Bramnick says. “Eventually the Republican Party is going to have to be reasonable in New Jersey or they’re never going to win. Unfortunately, this Trump effect seriously impacts Republican candidates. And I poll this stuff.”
Murray said that Monmouth will release a poll next week examining the race, including the role Trump might be playing.
In the advertisement, Murphy’s team plays its own slippery game by including a snippet of Ciattarelli saying, “I know we’re all working hard to make sure things go our way” as if he’s referring to the legitimacy of Biden’s win.
A fuller excerpt shows clearly that Ciattarelli was talking about a string of Republican election losses. So, if you’re keeping score, throw that dishonesty into the mix.
I wish this race were a tighter contest because Murphy deserves hard scrutiny, over the nursing home deaths, his treatment of women, the unchecked rapes at Edna Mahan Correctional Facility, the screw-ups during the pandemic over unemployment benefits and the Division of Motor Vehicles, his boycott of journalists who challenge him, and so on.
But Ciattarelli decided to go hard right to win the primary and now he’s got Trump stuck to him like glue. It’s going to hurt him. As it should.
More: Tom Moran columns
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