Phil Murphy is New Jersey’s first Democratic Governor to win re-election in almost half a century. His party predecessors were less fortunate. Governors Jim Florio and Jon Corzine both lost close reelection bids and embattled Governor Jim McGreevey resigned in his first term. Meanwhile, Republican Governors Tom Kean Sr., Christine Todd Whitman, and Chris Christie all won second terms during the 44-year Democratic drought.
1977 seems far-flung for younger analysts like myself. Jimmy Carter had just begun his term as President and my parents were in elementary school. Apple incorporated for the first time and the Eagles released their hit song “Hotel California”. Democratic Governor Brendan Byrne also pulled off a come-from-behind reelection victory. Despite his comfortable margin of victory, the Governor’s electoral chances started off so slim that he got the nickname “One-Term Byrne”.
Byrne was a life-long New Jerseyan in every sense and residents across the aisle respected him after he left elected office in 1982. The Garden State’s Hall of Fame inducted him before he died in Livingston in 2018 aged 93.
The former Governor was born in West Orange in 1924 of Irish-Catholic descent. Byrne served in the Air Force in World War II and went on to attend both Princeton and Harvard Universities. He worked in the legal world before and after his stint as state executive.
Byrne began his Democratic career in Governor Meyner’s administration. His boss went on to appoint him Essex County Prosecutor, a role he held for nearly a decade. In 1973, the youthful legal mind set his sights on the Governor’s mansion.
1973 Gubernatorial Election
State Democrats were keen to bring Drumthwacket back into the fold in 1973. Republican William Cahill flipped the office in 1969 after eight years of Democratic governance, but two developments gave the Democrats hope that they could retake the office.
- Although an effective Governor, Cahill struggled to uphold the integrity of his reelection campaign in the face of crippling scandal involving highway contract fixing and illegal campaign donations.
- The Governor faced a spirited primary challenge by South Jersey Congressman Charles Sandman.
Suffice to say, things went rather badly for Governor Cahill. Much like Corzine in 2009, he found himself unable to separate his clean personal reputation from an ethically-compromised administration. Adding to his woes, Sandman beat him in the primary – the only successful primary challenge to a sitting Governor since; the developing Watergate Scandal was also on the scene at this stage.
The Democratic landslide that November remains the party’s strongest gubernatorial performance to date. Byrne took almost 70% of the vote and won all but ancestrally-Republican Cape May county.
Things looked hopeful for Byrne and the vindicated Democrats early on. The 47th Governor’s coattails also gave his party a strong position in both chambers of the legislature. According to the 1980 Legislative manual, Byrne focused on “governmental spending limits, the Departments of the Public Advocate and Energy, and public election financing” during his firs term.
But the issue that would come to define his reelection was the Garden State’s new state-level income tax. Initially unpopular, Byrne stood against the proposal during the ’73 campaign but oversaw its implementation in 1976. His stand capped off grueling midterm losses and coincided with collapsing approval ratings. Heading into 1977, the Governor seemed dead on arrival and no one questioned it.
The 1977 Campaign – An Underdog Triumphs
Given the Governor’s vulnerability, it is no surprise that Republicans considered the Garden State prime real-estate for a pick-up ahead of the 1978 midterms. After an embarrassingly lopsided loss four years earlier, the GOP had no where to go but up. But Republicans were not even sure they would be facing Byrne in November when the campaign began.
Byrne was in trouble like Cahill before him. His unpopularity led numerous viable Democrats to jump into the race in an effort to snatch the helm from him and save the sinking ship before it was too late. Congressmen Robert Roe and Jim Florio had strong regional bases, but the fractured field allowed Byrne to win renomination with a paltry 30% of the vote.
His primary victory was surprising, but he still had to get through the general election against State Senator Raymond Bateman (Kip Bateman’s father) to secure another four years. Even after Independent Anthony Imperiale dropped out, a Democratic victory seemed to be a tough sell.
Byrne trailed Bateman badly in the polls over the summer months, with the newly-established income tax the most important campaign issue. Integrity was also a discussion point, with Bateman criticizing Byrne for appointing a mob-connected former prosecutor to head the Casino Control Commission. The New York Times posited that Bateman’s attack backfired with the Italian-American community. Byrne’s integrity was eventually restored by a tape recording of mobsters saying “he couldn’t be bought”; you can find some other campaign ads here.
Though his approval rating never fully recovered before the election, it did increase. Bolstered by the popularity of the $190 tax rebates funded by the income tax plan, Byrne surged ahead in the polls and bested Bateman 56-42% on election day. Ironically, the tax issue that initially looked as though it would sink his reelection ended up facilitating his comeback. Governor Byrne was living proof that anything is possible in politics.