New Jersey rarely elects a governor from the same political party in three consecutive elections, a point that might animate Republicans in a state that has nearly a million more Democrats.
The last time it happened was in 1961, when Democrat Richard Hughes won an upset victory to succeed a two-term Democrat, Robert Meyner. The sixteen-year stretch of Democratic governors was the longest since Republicans lost nine straight gubernatorial races between 1868 and 1892. A four-win GOP winning streak was halted when Woodrow Wilson won in 1910.
Term-limited governors are not always the reason for the shift.
Republican Tom Kean ended his second term in 1989 with a 63% approval rating in a Rutgers-Eagleton poll. Still, Democrat Jim Florio won a 24-point victory that year, with Democrats taking control of the State Assembly.
A Rutgers-Eagleton poll put Gov. Brendan Byrne’s approvals at just 23%, but Florio came within 1,797 votes of retaining the governorship against Kean. Republicans picked up three Senate seats and one Assembly seat that year.
Two-term governors Alfred Driscoll (in 1953), Christine Todd Whitman (in 2001), and Chris Christie (in 2017) were succeeded by governors of a different party.
Hughes was a little-known Superior Court judge and former county chairman who emerged as a compromise candidate after the early front-runner, former Attorney General Grover Richman, dropped out in February after suffering a heart attack.
The Republican nominee was James Mitchell, who had served as U.S. Secretary of Labor under President Dwight D. Eisenhower and had the backing of key New Jersey labor unions.
The Mitchell campaign suffered a severe setback in September when the candidate broke his leg and took him off the campaign trail for several weeks to recuperate following surgery; He completed the campaign on crutches. In the days before television commercials and social media, retail campaigning had an outsized impact on elections.
Mitchell’s injury helped Hughes, a vigorous campaigner, take the lead; he won by 34,920 votes statewide, 50.3%-48.7%.