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Jersey City Mayor Bret Schundler and New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman in the 1990s. (Photo: Bret Schundler).

20 years ago, the campaign for governor stopped

Schundler was stranded in Israel as McGreevey held 19-point lead

By David Wildstein, September 10 2021 12:08 pm

On September 11, 2001, both candidates for Governor of New Jersey immediately shut down their campaigns.  Fundraisers were cancelled – filet mignon from a major GOP fundraiser set for the weekend was sent to first responders instead, television commercials were pulled, events were repurposed into interfaith prayer vigils, and campaign volunteers on both sides shifted their energies to collecting food and other items for relief workers at the World Trade Center site.

At the time, the gubernatorial race was not really close.  Democrat James E. McGreevey had a 19-point lead, 49%-30%, over Republican Bret Schundler in the New Jersey gubernatorial race, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released on August 7.

Schundler, the former mayor of Jersey City, had made a quick three-day trip to Israel and was in Jerusalem when the two planes hit the twin towers.  With airports shut down, Schundler was left without a way to quickly return home.  He didn’t come back until September 14.

While McGreevey crisscrossed the state, holding the hands of families affected by 9/11 and delivering supplies to lower Manhattan, Schundler, in the pre-Zoom era, missed three days.

McGreevey, the Woodbridge mayor and former state senator who had nearly Whitman in 1997, had favorables of 31%-1%. Schundler was less known statewide; he had favorables of 20%-18%.

Donald DiFrancesco, who became governor six months earlier after Christine Todd Whitman resigned to joined George W. Bush’s cabinet, had approvals of 54%-17%.  Bush’s approvals in New Jersey were at 52%-42%.

Schundler restarted his campaign on September 22 and McGreevey followed the next day.

Fifteen days after the attacks, a majority of New Jerseyans (55%) said they thought it was appropriate for candidates to resume campaigning, while 40% thought it was still too early, according to a September 26 Quinnipiac poll

The poll showed the race narrowing a bit – Quinnipiac polls in those days typically showed statewide races tightening around that time in the cycle – with McGreevey now leading Schundler by 14 points, 44%-30%.  Schundler hadn’t picked up any support, but post 9/11, more New Jersey voters shifted into the undecided column.

In the two weeks after the towers came down, McGreevey’s favorables went to 27%-11%, while Schundler dropped to 19%-15% — perhaps an effect of a suspended campaign and voters paying monumentally less attention to local politics that world events.

During the same time, Bush’s approvals skyrocketed to 88%-8.

“New Jersey voted against Abraham Lincoln, but now he is treated well in the history books. New Jersey also voted against George W. Bush, but now he gets a near-unanimous approval rating,” the poll director, Maurice Carroll, said at the time.

By October 17, McGreevey’s lead was at 49%-39% among likely voters.  DiFrancesco’s approvals were at 60%-14%, and Bush was at 90%-7% in New Jersey.

Terrorism, safety and security were overwhelmingly the most important issue for likely voters, eclipsing the economy, 56%-8%.  As state issues, terrorism and property taxes tied at 14%.

McGreevey defeated Schundler by 14 points, 56%-42%.

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