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Here are some things you might not know about New Jersey governor’s races

By David Wildstein, October 31 2021 3:43 pm

Five New Jersey Governors: Thomas Kean, Brendan Byrne, William Cahill, Richard Hughes and Robert Meyner. (Photo: Center for the American Governor/Eagleton Institute of Politics).

As you follow Tuesday’s New Jersey gubernatorial election between Gov. Phil Murphy and Republican challenger Jack Ciattarelli, here’s some trivia to think about:

Start with the usual: Democratic governors rarely win re-election.  The last Democratic governor to win a second consecutive term was Brendan Byrne in 1977.  Robert Meyner (1957) and Richard Hughes (1965) were re-elected; Jim Florio (1993) and Jon Corzine (2009) lost.

Sometimes new presidents put a curse on gubernatorial candidates from their own party.  The last five times a new president was inaugurated, the party in the White House lost New Jersey governor’s races: George Bush in 1988 and Jim Florio in 1989; Bill Clinton in 1992 and Christine Todd Whitman in 1993; George W. Bush in 2000 and James E. McGreevey in 2001; Barack Obama in 2008 and Chris Christie in 2009.

It’s been 60 years since the New Frontier.  The last time Democrats inaugurated a new President and elected a Democratic governor of New Jersey later that year was in 1961, when John F. Kennedy’s election was followed by a come-from-behind victory by Richard J. Hughes.  (Lyndon Jonson was elected in 1964, but he’d already been President for a year.)

Republicans from Somerset County rarely win statewide elections.  The last winner was Christine Todd Whitman, who was elected in 1993 and re-elected in 1997. Malcolm Forbes (1957) and Raymond Bateman (1977) have lost governor’s races; Bernard Shanley (1964) and Millicent Fenwick (1982) have lost U.S. Senate bids.  Ciattarelli will either make Somerset 1-6 or 2-5.

Speaking of Somerset County. If Murphy carries Somerset, he’ll become the first Democrat to carry the county in two successive general elections.  Either way, 2022 will be the first year in New Jersey history that no Somerset County resident serves in the State Senate.

The last Governor Murphy was a one-termer.  Republican Franklin Murphy, a former Essex assemblyman, Newark city councilman and GOP State Chairman, was elected in 1901.  In those days, governors were term-limited, and he couldn’t run again in 1904. The last Governor Murphy ended his political career with an unsuccessful bid to become William Howard Taft’s running mate at the 1908 Republican National Convention.

Ciattarelli would be the first governor to jump from assemblyman to governor since Tom Kean.  Like Ciattarelli, Kean had served in the lower house and won the Republican gubernatorial nomination on his second try.  The last time the Assembly was the highest office held by a new governor was Joel Parker in 1862.

The legend of Henry Luther.  Luther was a former mayor of Parsippany and state lottery director who managed Brendan Byrne’s re-election campaign in 1977.  Murphy’s campaign manager, Mollie Binotto, will either join Luther, Robert Burkhardt (Hughes ‘65) and Edward Patten (Meyner ’57) as the only campaign managers to get a Democratic governor re-elected. (Burkhardt and Patten were sitting secretaries of state, and Patten went on to serve 18 years in Congress.)

What about Eric Arpert?  A Ciattarelli victory would make Arpert the third campaign manager to unseat a Democratic governor in New Jersey history.  Edward Rollins ran Christie Whitman’s campaign against Jim Florio in 1993 and Bill Stepien managed Chris Christie’s win over Jon Corzine in 2009.    Rollins and Stepien were both White House Political Directors – Rollins during Ronald Reagan’s first term and Stepien during Donald Trump’s presidency.

This is the first time both major party candidates for Lt. Governor have run for U.S. Senate.  Diane Allen sought the GOP Senate nomination in 2002 and Sheila Oliver ran in a special Democratic primary in 2013.

New Jersey has seen squeakers and landslides, sometimes by the same guy. Tom Kean won by just 1,797 votes against Jim Florio in 1981; four years later, he was re-elected with 70% of the vote, a 793,229-vote plurality.

One-term Byrne. Should Murphy become the first Democratic governor to score a second term in 44 years, he’ll be compared to the re-election margins of his political ancestors: Brendan Byrne won by 14 points and 295,684 votes in 1977, Dick Hughes was re-elected by 16 points and 363,572 in 1965, and Bob Meyner got his second term by 10 points and 203,809 votes in 1957.

Just Jack.  If Ciattarelli wins a state with one million more Democrats than Republicans, he’ll immediately a target in the next election. But no Republican governor of New Jersey has ever lost a re-election campaign in a general election.  (Bill Cahill was defeated in the 1973 primary.)

Looking ahead to 2025. 
Democrats haven’t won three consecutive gubernatorial elections in New Jersey since 1961, when Hughes followed two-term Gov. Robert Meyner.  Republicans haven’t done it since 1907 – maybe someone forgot to tell Kim Guadagno.

The Curse of the Golden Dome.  The last sitting Senate President to be elected governor was James Fielder in 1913, but Fielder had also been acting governor following Woodrow Wilson’s election to the White House.  The last former Senate President to win the governorship was Morgan Larson in 1928.  A sitting Assembly Speaker has never been elected governor; Tom Kean was Speaker from 1972 to 1974 and was elected Governor in 1981.

Last One. The last time a political party won the New Jersey governorship while simultaneously losing their majority in one house of the legislature was in 1889.  Democrat Leon Abbott beat Edward Grubb by five points, but Republicans flipped one seat in the State Senate –Seaman R. Fowler (R-Vineland) ousted Democratic two-term State Sen. Philip Baker (D-Vineland) to take the majority.  Democrats picked up five Assembly seats and held their majority.

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