An anti-Trump Republican thinks he can win NJ governor’s race by ‘10 points’

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SCOTCH PLAINS, New Jersey — State Sen. Jon Bramnick is not the typical Trump-era Republican. He has vowed to not vote for the former president in the 2024 presidential election, describes himself a “pro-choice Republican” and has even hosted Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy at a cocktail party in his backyard.

But it’s that independent streak — combined with his support for what he describes as traditional Republican values — that Bramnick says can propel him to the New Jersey governor’s office in 2025. And he thinks he can win it by 10 points.

Bramnick has credibility winning in Democratic-leaning areas. His once-solidly Republican suburban district based around Union County swung significantly to the left in the Trump-era. His current district would have voted for President Joe Biden over Trump by around 17 points in 2020, but he was able to win election to the state Senate by 7 points in 2023.

Bramnick says he’s the only Republican who can win a Democratic-leaning state like New Jersey, where Democrats outnumber Republicans by nearly a million registered voters but the state's large number of unaffiliated voters often sway elections. He served in the state Legislature for two decades, including as the Assembly minority leader during much of former Gov. Chris Christie’s tenure. He frequently preaches civility and bipartisanship in government — even as partisan clashes have spilled out in statehouses across the country and in Washington — and promises to be a check on Trenton’s current one-party rule.

“If you have two parties in Trenton and you have discussion and compromise, you're going to get to the middle,” he said in an interview with POLITICO in late March near his law office. “That's where I am, and that's where most people are. So when you get some Republicans who say ‘I'm going to change everything in Trenton’ — no they're not. Because there's gonna be a Democratic Legislature.”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You're a moderate Republican. You're a very unabashedly anti-Trump Republican. But given how anti-Trump Republicans have done nationally — I think of someone like Chris Christie or even [former Rep.] Liz Cheney — how do you win the Republican primary with that anti-Trump message? 

The media concentrates on the anti-Trump message because that's the thing that they find most interesting. My message is about smaller government, lower taxes and law and order. That's been traditionally where Republicans are, but because of so much space that Trump takes in the media and in discussions, that's always the focus when they talk to me. But my campaign is not simply that I’m against Trump. My campaign is that in order to win New Jersey — and I'm convinced about this — that they would love a traditional Republican. And I think I can win the general election by 10 points. That's how much the thirst is for balanced government in New Jersey. And I'll bet you dinner that I win the general election by 10 points

I don't want to get too ahead of ourselves. You’re talking about the general election — you still need to win the primary. The other night you even said jokingly that if Trump would win New Jersey that you would drop out. Are you worried that you're alienating the Republican base with some of this rhetoric?

No, I think what I'm doing is telling the Republican base that if you support a traditional Republican — I mentioned the three principles — that we will win overwhelmingly. There are going to be people who will concentrate simply on the fact that I'm not a fan of Donald Trump instead of focusing on what our traditional principles are and how, over the years, I've lived up to be a traditional Republican.

I was elected as the state Assembly Republican leader for a decade unanimously by every Republican representative from every part of the state. So I'm Republican enough. And I'm the kind of Republican that the state wants to vote for. But of course, people want to talk about Trump. That's fine. I'm not afraid to talk about Trump

And speaking of the primary, Jack Ciattarelli is expected to formally announce on April 9. Are you worried at all that with you and Ciattarelli in the race it could split the moderate vote in the primary? [Editor’s note: This interview was done before Ciattarelli formally announced he was running for governor]

No. I'm not worried about that. I think that Jack’s run [for governor] a couple times, lost a couple of times.

So Jack was in my [Assembly] caucus, he had an opportunity, and he lost. I am convinced, no doubt in my mind, that I am the traditional Republican who can win and once that message gets out, I think the primary voters will go like this: “You know, something? Bramnick’s right.”

So it sounds like that a very large part of your pitch in the primary, at least, is electability.

Absolutely, and that I'm surely Republican enough. Whether you like Trump or you don't like Trump, what you want is the traditional Republican that has won in New Jersey in the past.

What makes you Republican enough?

I've been a strong advocate of fiscal restraint as the Republican leader in conjunction with Chris Christie, I was part of a 2 percent [spending] cap on municipalities. I've never voted, despite the offerings of the Democrats, for a Murphy budget. Clearly on crime, I've been a strong law-and-order person. I was on the [Assembly] Law and Public Safety [Committee] when I continued to support the death penalty. I believe in minimum mandatory sentences. I believe in raising the level of offenses from third degree to second degree because third degree is no presumption of incarceration. So I think those kinds of issues are so much more important than simply rhetoric, whether you're a Trumper or not.

On crime, you had mentioned mandatory minimum sentences, the death penalty — are those things that you would pursue as governor?

I think you're not going to be able to pursue the death penalty in New Jersey because the Legislature's Democratic. But I have a priority of raising the level of offenses. For example, when you steal a car, you can steal a car twice and still not go to jail, and part of that is the presumption against incarceration because it's a third degree. So yes, we're gonna have to raise the level of offenses. And you don't fix that through bail reform because bail reform is a temporary custody. We're talking about jail for people who do crimes. Right now there's no deterrent because very few people are going to jail. So we get back to the main question of, are we going to focus on whether I like Trump or not, or are we going to focus on two things? Have I proved myself as a traditional Republican? And am I electable?

Let's just talk about the Democrats for a second running in the gubernatorial race. You have Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop, Newark Mayor Ras Baraka. They're actually running campaigns that would be much more progressive than the Murphy administration. What do you think about that?

I think they're gonna lose.

First, I think they're gonna lose in a primary, probably. But more importantly, I don't think the majority of people in New Jersey think the state should go farther left. That might sell in a primary, but I don't think if you polled people in New Jersey, I don't think you'd find 60 percent of the people who think that we're not liberal enough in terms of our state policies.

You often say that you're a pro-choice Republican. If you were governor, would you do anything to advance abortion rights in the state?

There's nothing to advance. It's pretty clear. But I surely would protect the right of a woman to choose. I don't believe in late-term abortions. So would I have to advance anything? I think I wouldn't have to do much.

Is there anything that you would try to roll back? You mentioned that you're worried about abortions later in pregnancy. Chris Christie cut funding for Planned Parenthood. Is that something that you would want to pursue? 

No. That would not be that would not be on my agenda, to cut funding for Planned Parenthood.

Are you worried at all that supporting abortion rights could hurt you in a Republican primary?

I would say this — that I think we are the party of less government. So I think the people who are traditional Republicans, who truly believe in limited government, would allow a doctor and a woman to make that decision in private without the government getting involved.

There is some point in time, and I can't tell you how many weeks, at some point in time, the government needs to get involved when there's a viable fetus that can live outside the womb. But surely, in the early stages of pregnancy, government shouldn't be in the room with the doctor and the woman. So is it an issue that may come up in a primary? Yes, but I'm 100 percent committed to my position.

But as far as viability — if you're governor, that’s something that you would not address or you would address?

I think that the law in New Jersey right now protects a woman's right to choose. I don't expect to change that law when I get in. And I don't think there's a need for it at this stage.

Let's talk about taxes. You always talk about the fact that you want to lower taxes. If you're governor, which taxes do you want to lower?

Well first, I think you have to put a cap on state spending. Why is there a [2 percent] cap on municipal spending, on county spending, but no 2 percent cap on state spending? The only way I think legislators and politicians stop spending is when the [state] Constitution tells them to stop spending. Because they can't help themselves. It's much easier to say yes to your mayors and to your commissioners and to your constituents in trying to get funds. The [state] Constitution and a 2 percent cap, with some exceptions, would change that. You'd have an ability to say no and not look like a bad guy.

I think if you're going to spend more than the 2 percent, then that money has to go directly to tax relief. That would be in the [state] Constitution, like directly to the taxpayer or in some manner … to lower taxes. So property taxes number one. Number two, state income tax in the state. Florida has none. Pennsylvania is lower.

Right now, based on the spending by the Democrats over the last six years, there doesn't seem to be any hope for a taxpayer thinking things are gonna get better. They have to believe it's going to get better. Not easy. But you have to give them some hope.

You're talking about cutting taxes. I know that you had mentioned —

When you say cutting taxes — a billion dollars went to special projects [in the state budget]. That billion dollars, if we could bring that money back… maybe you could do things like not increase the corporate business tax. What I'm saying is they're increasing taxes. I would stabilize taxes by trying to limit some of the spending.

We're already seeing in the budget process happening right now that there were some problems with the revenues not exactly matching the spending, aside from the billion dollars that you had mentioned in items for specific legislative districts. Is there something else that you can look at in the budget and say, “this is something that we need to cut or roll back?” I'm thinking maybe pension payments, health benefits or anything else? 

Pension payments, you have to pay in full. I think that we look at budgets in a one-year cycle. Well, who does that? Only government does that. People want to know, what are you going to do now to support New Jersey Transit? What are you going to do now to make sure the pension payments [are made].

So the perspective has to be: what would I have done to put myself in a position that I wouldn't have a crisis on the gas tax? I wouldn't have a crisis on the corporate business tax. I wouldn't have to raise possibly fares on New Jersey Transit. But you got to give me two or three years to do it. Not 'okay here's how much money you got. We're getting less revenue now. Okay, fix it.' Houdini I'm not.

It sounds like what you're expressing support for is the idea of multi-year budgeting.

One hundred percent. When you have that kind of Biden money coming in, and now there's an operational deficit of a couple billion dollars … and you're using your surplus money for operational budgeting, you're not looking at that budget too closely. But I understand why you can't — you already spent the money the last couple of years.

I leave you with the final word.

I think there's an incredible thirst for a two party system. And I can feel it every night when I go out on the campaign trail. People in New Jersey, it's a purple state. But they want to trust the Republican brand.

There are a lot of Democrats who want me to be there as well. This is the most interesting part of what I find — the moderate Democrats are afraid of what they've seen. So my relationship with moderate Democrats is fabulous, because they don't like saying yes to stuff too. But they feel compelled they have to because these are people in their party. And they don't want to get the left wing mad at them. So I know this sounds crazy, but there's a whole bunch of Democrats [who] would like to see a Republican who can win and a Republican who believes in compromise.

A Republican who believes in balance. A Republican who doesn't call the other side names. The Republican doesn't hate Democrats. And the Republican that will stand up to [the] rhetoric of Donald Trump, and I could do it all. And I'm convinced that I'm the candidate who can win. Now the Republicans have to make that determination, and they'll have an opportunity to do that.