In 2021, former Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli rallied Republicans across the state of New Jersey to make the race against sitting Governor Phil Murphy surprisingly-close, losing 51-48%. Going into November, statewide polling had largely missed the palpable GOP enthusiasm that had developed as a result of both a strongly-Republican national environment and President Biden’s sinking approval ratings.
Despite accurate Ciattarelli internals, no forecaster had rated the gubernatorial race anything less than LIKELY DEMOCRATIC, with some observers even predicting a double-digit Murphy victory. While turnout was higher-than-average for an off-year state executive contest, many registered Republicans failed to come out and vote. This was one of multiple factors that kept Ciattarelli from getting close enough to dislodge the incumbent.
Even though he lost, Ciattarelli managed to put up a respectable performance. For example, he raised Kim Guadagno’s 2017 floor in many ancestrally-Democratic parts of South Jersey enough to flip Gloucester, Atlantic, and Cumberland counties. Even Ed Durr, who famously unseated Senate President Steve Sweeney in the 3rd district, has Ciattarelli to thank. Why? Sweeney drew large amounts of crossover support, but was ultimately unable to overcome his district’s double-digit preference for the GOP at the top of the ticket.
But Governor Murphy also reached milestones, the most notable of which dealt with tenure. At the time of his reelection, he was the first sitting Democrat to secure a second term in office since Brendan Byrne in 1977 – a drought of 44 years! Additionally, he presided over the continuation of trends favorable to his party in Hunterdon and Somerset counties. Both moved leftward relative to 2017, when Guadagno lost by double-digits statewide, even though Ciattarelli came much closer to victory than his predecessor.
The fact that downballot Republicanism was still visible in former bastions like Burlington, Somerset, and Bergen counties – albeit to a lesser degree than in years past – is a perfect example of how lag can temporarily delay ultimate realignment. To read more about the general inversion of the Garden State’s northern and southern coalitions, check out Split Ticket’s July piece.
2025 – BACKGROUND
As soon as the 2023 legislative elections are decided, New Jersey’s next gubernatorial race will take center-stage. In many ways, however, the campaign’s early rumblings have already begun in earnest. The elephant in the room for both parties, especially the Democrats, is the fact that Governor Phil Murphy will be term-limited after two terms. His reelection was historic, but in itself set up an even more unprecedented challenge for Democrats: holding Drumthwacket after eight years of one-party rule.
The party has not managed such an electoral feat since 1961, when former Superior Court Judge Richard Hughes narrowly held the Governorship for a “third Democratic term” after eight years of Governor Robert Meyner. It is too early to say with exactness whether Democrats will be able to replicate their 64-year old accomplishment in 2025, though it is certainly possible, especially if Democrats become the out-party after a hypothetical White House loss.
SOME POTENTIAL CANDIDATES
The leading Republican contender for the 2025 nomination is currently Jack Ciattarelli, last year’s nominee and an unsuccessful primary hopeful in 2017 as well. Given the fact that he came much closer to winning than much of the public expected, Ciattarelli’s decision to declare his upcoming campaign early was a wise one.
So far, it has allowed him to keep his operation underway while simultaneously using residual momentum to retain the high name recognition that he accrued last year. It is unclear, though, if Ciattarelli will be able to stay in the spotlight long enough to enter 2025 with a fading, yet, strong tailwind. After all, voters’ memories are notoriously short and easily-distracted.
Furthermore, Split Ticket has no way of divining the national environment that will be in play three years from now. Nationwide Republican momentum definitely helped Ciattarelli in 2021, despite a lack of national campaign resources. Should the 2025-2026 cycle turn into some form of Democratic midterm, though, Ciattarelli’s previous advantages will probably struggle to outlast a primary.
Even though Ciattarelli is currently an ostensible favorite for the GOP nomination, it is worthwhile to look at some of the party’s other potential candidates, many of whom could run in 2028 if Ciattarelli falters in 2025.
One rising star is Mike Testa, a state senator from the 1st district encompassing portions of Cape May and Cumberland counties. Testa won a special election in 2019 against Democrat Bob Andrzejczak, who had been appointed to replace Jeff Van Drew after his election to Congress.
Testa, hailing from the diverse community of Vineland, seems to be a youthful conservative leader with the credentials necessary to rise quickly through Republican ranks. The fact that the ascendant South Jersey wing of the GOP continues to increase its influence over the North Jersey old guard could also potentially benefit him in a primary down the line.
Another possibility is 39th district state senator Holly Schepisi, from Bergen County. Formerly an assemblywoman for over a decade, Schepisi moved to the Garden State’s upper chamber after veteran lawmaker Gerald Cardinale passed away. As a mainstream Republican in a marginal Biden-seat, a candidate like Schepisi would keep North Jersey’s traditional downballot GOP appeal on the table in a statewide race.
Other candidates, like state senator John Bramnick and former state GOP Chairman Doug Steinhardt currently seem unlikely to run. Bramnick enjoys his status as a true moderate in the legislature; Steinhardt is the favorite to win a special election for the senate seat of Warren County surrogate candidate Michael Doherty.
On the Democratic side of the race for Governor, two men have attracted the lion’s share of the attention: Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop and defeated Senate President Steve Sweeney.
Sweeney is the only member of his party who is officially in the race as of this writing, though his own potency, and that of South Jersey’s Norcross machine, has been squandered by a series of unfortunate events stemming from Ed Durr. He could lock down the dwindling southern establishment in a primary, but it would likely not be enough to beat a northern candidate enjoying the unfettered backing of the state’s new Democratic powerbase.
That frontrunner could very well end up being Fulop, a mayor of one of the Garden State’s larger communities. Fulop, along with the old Sweeney, actually considered seeking the Governorship in 2021 until Murphy himself entered the race.
Other potential candidates include Monmouth County state senator Vin Gopal, a rising star Indian-American who won reelection in 2021 despite a hostile environment.* Gopal endeared himself to other members of the legislature last cycle by taking interest in other campaign’s besides his own.
Another name that is frequently tossed around, especially by national figures, is that of 11th district Congresswoman Mikie Sherrill. First elected in 2018 after long-time moderate Rodney Frelinghuysen retired, Sherrill has quickly established herself as an effective and popular lawmaker among her constituents. Since a 2024 bid against Senator Bob Menendez would be a losing proposition, Sherrill’s statewide ambitions will probably lead her to seek New Jersey’s highest statewide office instead.
*Both Assemblypeople from the 11th district (same boundaries for both houses of the legislature) are now Republicans*
This is the earliest possible *early* look at the upcoming gubernatorial election in New Jersey, so all of the aforementioned predictions and developments should be taken with a certain grain of salt. Nevertheless, it is fair to say that Republicans should never be completely underestimated when it comes to state executive contests in the Democratic Garden State. The national political environment, as astute observers probably realize, stands to have the largest impact on the dynamics of the race. For now, Split Ticket is not issuing any ratings.