Former three-term assemblyman and businessman Jack Ciattarelli prevailed in New Jersey's Republican gubernatorial primary Tuesday, the Associated Press projected.
Ciattarelli, the biggest fundraiser and favorite to win going into the election, was the first Republican to launch a campaign to unseat Gov. Phil Murphy in January last year, before the COVID-19 pandemic took hold of the country and upended life as Americans knew it. This is his second attempt at taking the governor's mansion, after coming up short in 2017's GOP primary.
Deemed the viable moderate in the race, Ciattarelli focused his primary campaign on contrasting himself with Murphy, hitting on issues like the state's economy, taxes and the governor's response to the pandemic, rather than make former President Donald Trump central his campaign, as two of his competitors had.
While the Murphy campaign has painted Ciattarelli as closely aligned with Trump's views and the most extreme factions of the Republican Party, he's also been attacked by Republicans for not supporting the former president enough.
In late April, engineer Hirsh Singh, who ran against Ciattarelli, accused the now-nominee of being "out of touch with today's conservative movement."
"He is unapologetically running to recreate the Republican Party that appeals to RINO Mitt Romney supporters rather than MAGA supporters," Singh wrote, using the acronym for "Republican in name only." "Jack hates President Trump and the 'basket of deplorables' that helped form the greatest political movement in the history of this country."
Singh and pastor Phil Rizzo were each vying for the pro-Trump vote in the primary only registered Republicans could vote in. In May, Rizzo posted a photo with Trump at Mar-a-Lago, tweeting, "New Jersey 2021 can be a redo of 2016 if.....WE THE PEOPLE!"
Trump did not endorse a candidate in the GOP primary.
Ciattarelli's focus on Murphy over Trump, however, likely puts him in a better general election position than either Singh or Rizzo would have been in if either of them secured the nomination. Trump lost the state by 13 points in 2016 and nearly 16 points in 2020, suggesting he's politically toxic in statewide races.
Murphy ran unopposed in Tuesday's election and looks to be headed towards a victory in November, though as the pandemic underscored, a lot can change in just a few months.
According to a Rutgers-Eagleton poll released before polls closed Tuesday, 52% of New Jersey registered voters would vote for Murphy and 26% would vote for Ciattarelli in a head-to-head matchup if the election were held today. Ciattarelli seems to be suffering from low name recognition among the state's electorate, with 50% of New Jersey registered voters saying they do not know who he is, according to this poll.
If Murphy wins reelection, he'll be the first Democratic governor in the state to do since the 1970s.
ABC News' Meg Cunningham contributed to this story.