When Republican Doug Steinhardt, a pro-Trump candidate for governor of New Jersey, abruptly dropped his month-long campaign Monday night, he cited “unforeseen professional obligations.”
Few in Trenton — Republican or Democrat — bought the excuse.
Though the campaign has denied President Donald Trump was the reason behind Steinhardt’s withdrawal, the narrative has already formed among Trenton insiders: Steinhardt‘s unabashed support of the president before and after last week’s insurrection at the U.S. Capitol had done him irrevocable harm.
“I think the fact that Doug has not shied away from his position on Donald Trump posed a real challenge in November, especially with what happened on Wednesday. I think it poses a challenge to all Republicans,” said Al Barlas, the Republican chair of Essex County, referring to the riots. “I’m not saying we can’t overcome it, we can’t deal with it. But it’s a challenge.”
Even if Steinhardt, an attorney in private practice, had stayed in the race and won the GOP nomination, the door to the governorship had likely slammed shut. His candidacy could be among the first in the country ended by the events of Jan. 6.
Just as Chris Christie’s 2009 election as governor presaged the GOP‘s takeover of the House of Representatives in 2010, New Jersey — which, along with Virginia, is one of only two states to have a gubernatorial election this year — could once again be an early indicator of the political winds.
But it’s far from a perfect political augur. New Jersey has a million more registered Democrats than Republicans, hasn’t elected a Republican U.S. senator in nearly 50 years and has voted blue in every presidential election since 1992. But Republicans can and do win governorships in the Garden State. And while Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy has an approval rating in the low 60s heading into his re-election campaign, New Jerseyans’ opinions of their elected leaders can — and have — change quickly.
Steinhardt was not just generically pro-Trump. He was all in.
His top strategist was Bill Stepien, a New Jersey native who served as Trump‘s campaign manager. In a video in December announcing his candidacy, Steinhardt said, “Let me be really clear about this: I support President Trump. I always have. Some cut and run from our president during tough times, hoping he wouldn’t notice.“
And last week, just hours before the mob inspired by Trump’s false claims of widespread election fraud stormed the U.S. Capitol, he issued one of his first campaign ads, painting his main opponent for the GOP nomination, former Assemblymember Jack Ciattarelli, as anti-Trump. Even after the riot, Steinhardt wouldn’t pin any of the blame on the president.
“The actions of violent criminals do not speak for Republicans and supporters of President Trump,” he told POLITICO. “The conservative grassroots movement that I’m proud to represent here in New Jersey supports democracy and the rule of law.”
Still, Steinhardt talked with some New Jersey Republican leaders in the aftermath of the insurrection to gauge its effect on his candidacy, according to one GOP source who asked not to be identified while discussing private conversations.
Steinhardt is a partner at the law firm Florio, Perucci, Steinhardt and Capelli, which was founded by former Democratic Gov. Jim Florio and has prominent public and private sector clients. In an interview Tuesday, Florio said he had spoken recently with Steinhardt, who told him he was “mulling” whether to continue running.
Florio said he put no pressure on Steinhardt to drop out of the race and that he had not heard from any of the law firm’s clients expressing reservations.
Major corporations have already said they’d withhold any donations to Republican members of Congress who supported Trump’s baseless claims about the election and voted to overturn the Electoral College results.
Steinhardt’s departure from the race likely paves the way for Ciattarelli, who has been formally running for a year, to secure the party’s nomination to challenge Murphy.
Murphy, a progressive Democrat running for reelection, is popular but not invulnerable. His administration has had a major #MeToo scandal, his tenure has been marked by intense intra-party rivalries and he’s faced criticism over its handling of the pandemic, which has killed more than 20,000 New Jerseyans.
Ciattarelli, though a moderate member of the General Assembly and an outspoken critic of Trump in the early days of the 2016 presidential campaign, began praising Trump before kicking off his own campaign for governor early last year.
He was a featured speaker at a recent “Stop the Steal” rally that followed the president’s false claims of campaign fraud. And in a statement in the aftermath of the Capitol riots, Ciattarelli didn’t pin the blame on Trump, but rather on “political leaders in both parties” who “share responsibility for hyper-partisan rhetoric.”
Democrats aren’t going to let voters forget Ciattarelli’s late embrace of Trump, nor his comments about the riots.
Within minutes of Steinhardt’s withdrawal from the race, the Murphy campaign issued a statement attacking Ciattarelli for “completely failing to place the blame on Trump, his enablers, and his followers.”
The one potential bright spot for New Jersey Republicans is that Ciattarelli now faces only nominal opposition for the GOP nomination from perennial candidate Hirsh Singh and possibly from former Somerset County Freeholder Brian Levine. The deadlines for Republican latecomers to compete for the support of local GOP organizations begin this weekend, including in Ocean County — a red bastion that’s extremely important in a Republican primary.
An uncompetitive primary would free Ciattarelli to attack Murphy instead of fighting a fellow Republican in a primary and taking positions that could hurt him in the general election. But he still faces a divided party with a base that remains fiercely loyal to Trump.
“It’s a minority party to begin with, but then to have a minority party that’s badly split, you’ve got to overcome all those internal problems first, and only then can you overcome the massive blue state deficit you’d be facing,” said Micah Rasmussen, a political science professor at Rider University. “That’s a tall order.”