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Republican Jack Ciattarelli meets with supporters at the Point Pleasant boardwalk. NorthJersey.com

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Primary elections on Tuesday narrowed the field for this November's contests, starting at the top. 

Gov. Phil Murphy has a challenger, and it won't be a MAGA Republican.

Meanwhile, a bruising battle between former running mates means a key seat in Bergen County will most likely be filled by a progressive. 

And New Jersey's organizational power went undiminished in a year where candidates protested the political system.

Here's a look at the key takeaways from Primary Night in New Jersey:

Jack vs. Phil

This is the matchup Jack Ciattarelli wanted in 2017. But he lost that year's primary.

Getting ahead of the pack in 2021 by announcing his candidacy early, Ciattarelli never faced a serious threat to his front-runner status for the Republican nomination for governor, though late indicators suggested he feared an upset. 

He locked up the organizational support in all 21 counties and out-raised his Republican opponents, ending up with 49% of the vote on Tuesday night in the four-person primary.

Now he will challenge Murphy, the Democratic incumbent, in November.

Earlier:  Former Assemblyman Ciattarelli the GOP challenger to Gov. Phil Murphy

Murphy is popular, well-funded and his party has 1.1 million more voters than Republicans.

If Ciattarelli has anything on his side, it is history. Republicans have unseated Democratic governors in their first terms every election cycle since 1981— and gone on to a second term. 

There is no indication yet that that will happen this time around. A Rutgers-Eagleton poll released Tuesday found that 52% of registered voters would cast their ballots for Murphy compared to 26% for Ciattarelli. 

Much can change between now and November — and would have to for Ciattarelli's prospects to brighten.

MAGA split    

The two candidates who competed fiercely for former President Donald Trump's base split it instead. Phil Rizzo captured  26% of the vote, while Hirsh Singh got 21%, according to The Associated Press.

The other Republican contender, former Somerset County freeholder Brian Levine, garnered just 3% of votes cast. 

Rizzo and Singh jockeyed for position as the Trumpiest of candidates: Rizzo posting a photograph with the former president at his Florida resort and Singh promising to "Make New Jersey Great Again," an adaption of Trump's campaign slogan. At the same time, they tore Ciattarelli down for being insufficiently loyal to Trump. 

Still, the Democratic Governors Association put Trump front-and-center of Ciattarelli's victory.

"After a bruising primary full of infighting and Trump-loyalty tests, Jack Ciattarelli has managed to crawl into the general election," executive director Noam Lee said in a statement. 

"Ciattarelli spent the primary running scared in an attempt to win over the far-right and now heads into November as an extreme candidate who's out of touch with New Jersey values." 

Weinberg's seat effectively filled 

The primary win by Gordon Johnson means he is all but certain to fill the seat of Sen. Loretta Weinberg, the longtime legislator from Teaneck who is retiring

Johnson, a Democratic Assemblyman, defeated his former running mate, Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle, in a primary that turned bitter at times despite there being little to no daylight between the two on policy. 

Instead, the contest devolved into personal disputes that invoked race and gender politics. 

Johnson, a former law enforcement officer, is likely to become the first Black senator to represent Bergen County, the state's most populated. 

More: Johnson wins Bergen race to succeed Loretta Weinberg in Senate

'The Line' prevails

Few things are as effective in New Jersey politics as a candidate getting the coveted 'county line': The backing of the local political organization that puts them on the preferred ballot position boosting their chances of victory. 

This year was the strongest challenge to that system, with a lawsuit seeking to do away with the ballot design that critics say is unconstitutional, anti-Democratic and thwarts competition. 

But the line won in practice Tuesday night. 

Vainieri Huttle's defeat exemplified the power of the ballot design. She had run "off the line" because Johnson had won the support of the Democratic establishment, including Murphy and Weinberg. Vainieri Huttle then attacked the process and portrayed herself as an outsider despite more than a decade in the Legislature. 

The line's power is seen in other legislative races. 

In Monmouth County, Assemblywoman Serena DiMaso lost her reelection bid after the county party backed Holmdel school board president Vicky Flynn instead. Now Flynn will run alongside DiMaso's former ticket mate, Assemblyman Gerry Scharfenberger, in November. 

In Hudson County, the local organization backed William Sampson over Democratic Assemblyman Nicholas Chiaravalloti, who got 0% of votes (he dropped out after losing the line. Sampson, on the other hand, received 48% of the votes and will run with Assemblywoman Angela McKnight. 

And in Morris County's 26th District, it appeared Assemblywoman BettyLou DeCroce was on the verge of losing her seat after the Morris County organization backed Jay Webber and Christian Barranco, a former Pompton Lakes councilman now living in Jefferson.

With 99% of precincts reporting, Barranco had 24% of the vote and DeCroce had 22%, according to The Associated Press.

More: DiMaso falls short in primary run to challenge Monmouth GOP-backed candidates

What's next

The governorship and all 120 seats in the Legislature are on the ballot in the Nov. 2 general election. 

The most attention will likely be on the race between Ciattarelli and Murphy, and it's a potentially historic contest.

A victory by Murphy would be the first by a Democratic governor seeking a second term since Brendan Byrne in 1977. Murphy is in a strong position to achieve that. 

A Ciattarelli win would certainly be an upset, but it would also follow the recent pattern of Republicans unseating incumbent Democrats. He would join Tom Kean, Christie Whitman and Chris Christie elected to replace a Democratic governor (Kean defeated a Democrat running to succeed term-limited Democrat Byrne 

Ciattarelli acknowledged the challenge. 

"This campaign is not going to be easy," he said in a statement Tuesday night. 

"Murphy will seek to divide us and he will do everything possible to distract you from his failed record. Here is my message for New Jersey tonight: come hell or high water, we will make New Jersey more affordable by lowering property taxes. We will create jobs. We will bring Main Street small businesses back to life. We will reduce the size and cost of government. New Jersey, we can do better." 

Murphy, who ran uncontested, referred to his broad support as proof that majority of New Jerseyans back his policies and goals. 

"The choice in November is clear. We can either keep New Jersey moving forward or go backward," he said in a statement.

"It’s a choice between standing for higher wages or going back to an economy that only worked for the wealthy and well-connected," he added. "It’s a choice to defend reproductive rights under threat from the U.S. Supreme Court or put political ideology over health care. It’s a choice to make education better and more affordable, from pre-K to college, or a state that only works for the few and not for all." 

More: Murphy and GOP lawmaker accused of defamation in new filing by fired top health official

Dustin Racioppi is a reporter in the New Jersey Statehouse. For unlimited access to his work covering New Jersey’s governor and political power structure, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

Email: racioppi@northjersey.com 

Twitter: @dracioppi 

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