Skip to main content

NJ Republicans are embracing, sort of, Trump politics. But it only goes so far: Stile


play
Show Caption

Thomas H. Kean Jr., a Republican candidate for Congress in 2020, kept an embarrassed distance from then-President Donald J. Trump.

But for Tuesday's primary for the 7th Congressional District, Kean has become a newfound disciple of Trumpism.

"Tom Kean Jr. supports the Trump agenda,'' reads a mailer paid for the New Jersey Republican State Committee, with a small, inset photo of Kean next to a large, no-nonsense visage of Trump. "Support police. Secure the border. Stop inflation."

Yet conspicuously absent from the policy listing is any reference to Trump's singular obsession: the lie that the 2020 election was stolen through massive fraud orchestrated by Democrats.

Nor is there any inference or claim that Joe Biden is not a legitimate president, or any other conspiracy theories that germinated in the right-wing fever swamp and now circulate in the bloodstream of the Republican Party base.

For the most part, the Big Lie is not getting the big play in New Jersey Republican primaries, certainly not like Pennsylvania, where GOP voters picked a far-right nominee for governor, Doug Mastriano, who pressed for the overturning of the 2020 election and joined throngs at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington, D.C., as they mounted an insurrection. 

It's not totally absent, and MAGA candidates in the 4th Congressional District have waved the Big Lie banner in their bid to dislodge longtime Republican Rep. Chris Smith. The 4th District includes Ocean County, the hotbed of Trump support in New Jersey.

Yet it has taken a back seat to other pressing, hot-button issues that have dominated voters' concerns. Issues like inflation, gas prices and the war in Ukraine as well as new wedge issues like critical race theory and LGBTQ curriculum.

Political operatives say it reflects an inflection point in the Trump era — voters are willing to embrace much of the conservative Trump agenda, but no longer eager to relitigate the 2020 election.

"Even voters who agree with the Big Lie, or have fallen for it, also believe that like it's been a year and a half now and [Biden] is still president,'' said Michael DuHaime, a Republican political consultant who managed both of Chis Christie's campaigns for governor. "He's not going anywhere, and so the focus is on the future."

John Flora, the mayor of Fredon, in Hunterdon County, who is competing with Kean for the 7th District nomination, has run a buck-the-establishment campaign, criticizing the party elites for their failure to back clear-choice conservatives who can win. His recent newsletter "The Conservative Tribune," lists a roster of conservative positions. The Big Lie is never mentioned.

"As Bill Clinton said, campaigns are about the future, not about the past,'' said Thom Ammirato, a consultant for Flora's campaign.

The recent primary results in Georgia illustrated the limitations of the Big Lie campaign theme.

In the governor's primary, Brian Kemp soundly defeated Trump's "hand-picked' candidate, David Perdue. Kemp was a target of Trump's revenge for resisting Trump's pressure to overthrow the 2020 election.

And Brad Raffensperger, who became a target of MAGA wrath for resisting Trump's plea to "find" more than 11,000 votes to overturn the election, also defeated challenger Jody Hice, a Trump ally who built his campaign on false claims about the 2020 election.

NJ primary election 2022: Democratic nomination for Prospect Park mayor at stake

Politics: NJ primary election pits Trump's 'America First' Republicans against moderate favorites

Another factor is New Jersey's moderate, pro-governance tradition.

Voters have sent to Congress Republicans who are less ideological and more skilled at delivering federal funds for priorities, like transportation and infrastructure. Smith voted for Biden's infrastructure package citing the need to repair bridges that link the mainland to the coastal shore towns — a vital industry in his district.

Still, the Trump fury over 2020 — and his attempts to thwart inquiries into the Jan. 6 riot — still hold sway over some parts of the New Jersey base. At a minimum, some make an obligatory mention of the Big Lie, although it's often woven into a litany of other grievances.

"Biden didn't get 81 million votes,'' tweeted Ian Smith, the Camden County gym owner who became a right-wing media darling for defying Gov. Phil Murphy's lockdown orders during the pandemic. Smith is running for the GOP nomination in the 3rd Congressional District, which includes parts of Burlington, Mercer and Monmouth counties.

But Smith then listed other planks of his right-wing platform: opposition to gun control, his disdain for the GOP establishment and raising the alarm over sex education curriculum that takes effect in New Jersey public schools in September.

And others steered toward largely safe terrain when pressed on the question of "election integrity,'' the catchall phrase used in the wake of the 2020 uproar over the ballot fraud claims.

Nick DeGregorio, a candidate for the 5th Congressional District, which stretches across North Jersey, said he supports requiring voters to produce government issued IDs, such as passports, before casting ballots. The former U.S. Marine and veteran of both Afghanistan and Iraq called it a "commonsense" solution.

Mike Crispi, the 29-year-old America First candidate challenging Chris Smith, has been the most aggressive in using the Big Lie as a political cudgel on the campaign trail.

"Sleepy Joe Biden and the Democrats stole the 2020 election, and they sent us in a tailspin,'' he said in his announcement video last year. 

As part of that narrative, he depicts Smith as a complicit "swamp creature" who has been on the job too long and has lost touch with his constituents and party. He repeatedly slams Smith for voting for Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's "witch hunt" panel to investigate the Jan. 6 insurrection.

Smith did vote for a bipartisan panel, modeled after the commission that investigated the 9/11 attacks. The measure passed the House but failed in the Senate.

But Smith also voted against the creation of a separate House committee to investigate the matter. It is that panel, not the failed 9/11-styled panel, that right-wing critics have slammed as a witch hunt. Smith has accused Crispi of lying about his record.

Just how effective the attack will be remains one of the big question marks about Tuesday's primary. Certainly the 4th District is fertile pro-Trump territory — Trump carried it by 16 points in 2020, his largest margin in the state.

Smith, one of the longest-serving members of Congress, has rallied the Republican establishment behind him, including the Republican National Committee, and has the backing of veteran conservative luminaries like former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Crispi, a former podcaster, jumped into the race after Trump publicly vowed to support a candidate to challenge Smith. Trump was furious with Smith and 10 other GOP House members who voted for Biden's infrastructure package last November. 

Crispi did get a constellation of Trump insiders to back his campaign, including former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and political trickster and consultant Roger Stone. 

Yet, Trump, whose name and spirit and Big Lie rhetoric are routinely invoked by Crispi, has stayed quiet — and stayed away. 

Charlie Stile is a veteran political columnist. For unlimited access to his unique insights into New Jersey’s political power structure and his powerful watchdog work, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

Email: stile@northjersey.com 

Twitter: @politicalstile