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Four New Jersey Governors, left to right: Robert B. Meyner, William T Cahill, Brendan T. Byrne and Richard J. Hughes. Ace Alagna collection courtesy of the Monsignor William Noé Field Archives & Special Collections Center, Seton Hall University Libraries, South Orange.

Most incumbent governors face primary challenges

Only Cahill lost renomination, Byrne won primary with just 30%

By David Wildstein, January 29 2020 10:48 am

Gov. Phil Murphy could face a challenge from former Assistant Attorney General Shavar Jeffries in the 2021 Democratic gubernatorial primary, a move that is not unusual in New Jersey.

Six of the last ten governors faced primaries in their bids for re-election to second terms since the 1947 New Jersey Constitution ended one-term limits for the state’s chief executive.

Only one sitting governor has lost a primary: Republican William Cahill was defeated by Rep. Charles Sandman (R-Erma) in 1973 by 61,623 votes, a 58%-41% margin.   Sandman went on to lose the general election to Democrat Brendan Byrne by 721,378 votes (66%-32%).

Byrne faced ten other Democrats in the 1977 Democratic gubernatorial primary, including two congressmen, the mayor of Jersey City, and a former member of his own cabinet.

He won the primary with just 30% of the vote, defeating the second-place finisher, Rep. Robert Roe (D-Wayne) by 41,332 votes (23%).  Former State Sen. Ralph DeRose (D-South Orange) finished third with 17%, followed by Rep. Jim Florio (D-Runnemede) with 15%, former Commissioner of Labor Joseph Hoffman with 10%, and State Sen. Raymond Garramone (D-Haworth) with 1%.   Paul Jordan dropped out in May after his hand-picked replacement lost his bid for Jersey City mayor.

The Corzine harbinger

Democrat Jon Corzine faced former Glen Ridge mayor Carl Bergmanson and perennial candidates Jeff Boss and Roger Bacon in the Democratic primary when he ran for re-election in 2009.

Corzine won 77% of the vote, but it was the nearly one-out-of-four Democratic primary voters who didn’t support him that signaled some weakness for the governor among members of his own party.

He was helped by strong showings in Essex (89%), Hudson (87%), Passaic (85%) and Union (81%), but he appeared to under-perform outside of North Jersey.

Corzine won just 67% in Middlesex and 70% in Camden.  He received 62% in Monmouth, 65% in Ocean, 60% in Sussex, and 61% in Hunterdon.  In Warren County, the incumbent governor of New Jersey took just 56% of the vote against the former mayor of a tiny Essex town, a candidate who had lost his five previous bids for public office, and a guy who claimed the 9-11 attacks were orchestrated by the NSA.

In the other South Jersey counties, Corzine received 75% in Atlantic, 71% in Burlington, 68% in Cape May, 64% in Gloucester, and 62% in Salem.

In nine counties, Corzine received less votes than local candidates did.

In that race, Bergmanson finished second with 9% of the vote, 486 votes ahead of 9-11 conspiracy theorist Jeff Boss.  Roger Bacon won 6%.

The other three primaries were less threatening:

* In 2013, Chris Christie faced former Atlantic County freeholder Seth Grossman in the Republican primary for governor and won 92% of the vote.

* In 1965, Richard Hughes won 91% against William H. Clark, the first African American to run in a New Jersey gubernatorial primary.  Clark, who had sent his daughter to school in Russia because he was dissatisfied with the quality of public education in Newark, complained that Hughes had not appointed enough blacks to post in his administration.

* In 1949, Driscoll defeated four-term Somerset County freeholder Robert Adams by 116,259 votes, 70%-30%.  Adams had promised to not be a dictator if he were governor, criticizing Driscoll for heavy-handed tactics with the legislature.  Adams also pledged a campaign that didn’t include name-calling.

Four incumbent governors did not face primary challenges when they sought re-election: Robert Meyner in 1957, Tom Kean in 1985, Jim Florio in 1993 and Christine Todd Whitman in 1997.

Florio just barely avoided a primary.

John Budzash, a postal worker who had led a massive grassroots organization, Hands Across New Jersey, to protest Florio’s $2.8 billion tax increase, sought to run.

Budzash filed petitions with 1,189 signatures with the Secretary of State just minutes before the 4 PM deadline — just slightly more than the 1,000 needed.  The Secretary of State, former South Jersey State Sen. Daniel Dalton, said Budzash actually filed just 1,934 signatures — a point that the activist disputed.  Then Democrats challenged 246 signatures and got Budzash tossed from the ballot.

The New Jersey Supreme Court upheld the decision.

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