TRENTON – With the primary election approaching in two weeks, it’s debate week in the Republican gubernatorial race.

Republican voters are expected to have two opportunities to hear from former Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli and engineer Hirsh Singh in the official, state-sanctioned debates, which begin Tuesday at 7 p.m. in Ewing in a debate hosted by New Jersey 101.5 News.

The second debate is scheduled for a day later, hosted by NJ Spotlight News. Singh, however, late last week objected to the debate’s online format and indicated he wouldn’t participate unless it’s in-person. NJ Spotlight said the debate was always going to be virtual and that its studios are unavilable because they're being renovated.

New Jersey 101.5 is hosting the first gubernatorial primary debate between the Republican candidates. The program will air live on 101.5 and at starting at 7 p.m. on May 25.

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Rider University political scientist Micah Rasmussen said Ciattarelli enters as the favorite, with all the preferred county lines on the June 8 ballot and as the only candidate with state matching funds, providing him a multi-million-dollar advantage.

“It will be very interesting to see how Jack Ciattarelli parries the lobs from Hirsh Singh,” said Ramsussen, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics. “But really I think the debates are going to be a chance for Jack to get his agenda and his ideas out there, to field test them.”

The debate provides an opportunity for Singh to share the spotlight with Ciattarelli and be seen as a viable alternative.

But Rasmussen remains doubtful of Singh’s chances in the race, noting he isn’t supported by any county organizations after having gotten ‘the line’ in some places in his run last year for U.S. Senate.

“I don’t see him as having a very formidable chance,” he said. “He hasn’t qualified for any matching funds. So, I’m skeptical as to whether or not he is going to be able to pick up any traction.”

Candidates qualify for the debate by meeting a fundraising threshold by a deadline set by the Election Law Enforcement Commission – this cycle, $490,000 by April 5.

Singh qualified by the debate stage by raising more than the required $490,000 – but nearly $428,000 of the $527,000 raised by the campaign has come from the candidate and his family. Most of those funds are considered a loan, which isn't eligible to be matched.

Candidates Philip Rizzo and Brian Levine won’t be on the stage, which Rasmussen said is unfortunate.

“For the benefit of Republican primary voters, it would have been great to see all four GOP candidates in the debate,” Rasmussen said.

Those rules aren’t set by the station. Rasmussen noted they’re set by law and administered by ELEC.

“I think that constrains the value of the debate, since you only have some of the candidates in the race,” he said.

Rizzo has raised $563,000 for the race – which surpasses the $490,000 threshold to qualify for $2-for-$1 matching funds and a debate invitation. But he didn’t file the contributions and the needed supporting proof by the April 5 deadline, and ELEC ruled that he didn’t qualify.

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Rasmussen said the race would have different if Rizzo had filed his qualifying paperwork on time.

“He could have been a more formidable candidate if he’d gotten the matching funds, obviously, and if he had gotten some of the second looks from these county organizations who would have been inclined to look at a Trump-supporting candidate,” Rasmussen said.

Rasmussen said he thinks Republican voters want to hear about reopening the state post-pandemic and the path forward for the party – in the image of former President Donald Trump or a new direction.

Rizzo, incidentally, will be holding a campaign fundraiser during the debate at the Trump National golf club in Bedminster, where he is a member.

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