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Monday, June 21, 2021

Trump loyalty put to the test in New Jersey GOP primary

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Hirsh Vardhan Singh is closing out his underdog bid for the GOP gubernatorial nomination in New Jersey with a full-throated endorsement of former President Trump’s claim that he won the 2020 election.

Mr. Singh’s social media feeds are plastered in Trump fandom and over the weekend he posted a picture of himself sporting a red “TRUMP WON” baseball cap below the caption: “I’m not afraid to say it, President Trump won in 2020.”

The strategy is shaping up to be a feature, not a bug, in the 2021 and 2022 GOP primary contests as candidates look to tap into Mr. Trump’s lingering influence on the party and his loyal supporters.

The big question is whether it will help or hurt the Republican Party’s bid to turn voters against President Biden and Democrats writ-large to flip control of the House and Senate next year.

“I think you are going to see it all over,” said Steve Mitchel, a GOP strategist. “A candidate who tries to run away from Donald Trump is likely to lose the primary and likely lose the general, and some candidates are going to try to straddle that fine line between being for Trump but not being for some of the more radical concepts that Trump is espousing. That includes the stolen election claim.”

He added: “If you are in a tough race and you are underfunded, then the best strategy you can employ is to run as a Trump-Republican and go all-in with Trump.”

That appears to be the case in the New Jersey GOP gubernatorial primary on Tuesday.

Former state Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli has dramatically outraised and outspent Mr. Singh and the two other contenders: former Franklin Mayor Brian Levine and pastor Phil Rizzo, another pro-Trump candidate.

A recent tally from the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission showed Mr. Ciattarelli raised $6.9 million and spent $5.9 million — five times more than his rivals.

The winner of the race will get the chance to face off in the general election against Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat who does not have a primary challenger.

Mr. Ciattarelli has been more willing to distance himself from Mr. Trump. After all, Trumpism has not been a big winner in New Jersey.

Mr. Biden carried New Jersey by a 57%-41% margin, and the president remains popular in the state, according to polls.

Mr. Trump stayed on the sidelines but his presence has still loomed large.

Things got a little confusing late last week after a false news release from Mr. Trump circulated online last week that said he endorsed Mr. Singh over “NEVER TRUMPER Jack Ciattareli.”

“This posting is FAKE,” Trump spokesman Jason Miller said Monday on Twitter. “President Trump has NOT endorsed in the race for Governor of New Jersey.

Mr. Singh, however, has made it clear he is going to sink or swim with the MAGA flag.

“This is the very first battle for the heart and soul of the Republican Party,” he said Monday on Steve Bannon’s “War Room: Pandemic” podcast, which has become a popular showcase for Trump-inspired candidates. “We win this race, it is going to change the entire landscape and ensure that political observers across the country focus on American first candidates for 2022 and 2024.”

“I have been with President Trump since 2015,” he said. “I was there on Jan. 6. That was a hippie lovefest.”

There are concerns inside the GOP ranks that that sort of message could dent the party’s appeal with independent and moderate-leaning voters that were turned off by Mr. Trump and the tumultuous end of his four-year term.

“Hersh Singh parroting the election lie, and gaining traction with it, is potentially a bad sign for Republicans,” said Mike DuHaime, a New Jersey-based GOP strategist. “As a party, our candidates need to be looking forward not backward. In N.J. in 2021, our nominee should want to talk about Gov. Phil Murphy, not Donald Trump, who lost the state by double digits in 2016 and 2020, and swept out the state’s GOP congressional delegation in 2018.”

Democrats, meanwhile, want to keep the spotlight on Mr. Trump after winning the House, Senate and White House on his watch.

Mr. Mitchell, though, said history suggests that is wishful thinking on the part of Democrats.

“Presuming Trump is not on the ticket — say for Congress somewhere in an attempt to become speaker of the House — this will not be an election about Donald Trump as the last three elections have been,” he said. “He will be a factor, but this is really going to be an election about Joe Biden and the Democrats.”

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