11. Chris Christie def. Steve Lonegan
In 2009, the former mayor of Bogota ran a highly creative, movement conservative GOP Gubernatorial Primary campaign against the former U.S. Attorney. Christie mostly avoided him, but the contest was almost a statistical dead heat when the Christie campaign fixed on Lonegan’s unpopular flat tax proposal, made that the highlight in negative campaign ads and surged to a 55-42% victory.
10. Charles Sandman def. William Cahill
A conservative Cape May congressman from the 2nd District, Sandman upended incumbent Republican Governor Cahil in the 1973 gubernatorial election. Cahill only carried five counties, as Sandman used scandal in the administration and the Republican governor’s hike of the state sales tax from three to five percent to defeat him. The congressman would then go on to lose the general election to Democrat Brendan Byrne, an Essex County prosecutor and former superior court judge.
9. Frank Lautenberg def. Millicent Fenwick
In the 1982 general election for a U.S. Senate seat, Fenwick, a popular Republican congresswoman from Somerset County, led the Paterson-born data processing CEO by 18 points. In the final days prior to the election, that gap had substantially narrowed. “Lautenberg has the momentum going into Tuesday’s election, running ahead of Fenwick among likely voters who said they had decided which candidate to support within the last week,” Rutgers-Eagleton Poll Director Cliff Zukin said. But with 42 percent of both candidates’ supporters reporting they might change their minds before voting, “This is a very fluid electorate,” Zukin said. Then-President Ronald Reagan came to the state to campaign for Fenwick, but the self-funding Lautenberg pulled out a 51-48% upset.
8. Brendan Byrne def. Ray Bateman
Having championed the state income tax, “One-Term Byrne” wasn’t supposed to win reelection in 1977. The late Republican state Senator Bateman led Byrne by 17 points in the lead-up to the general election, but Byrne pulled out an improbable 56-42% win after nine debates around the state.
7. Christie Todd Whitman def. James McGreevey
The incumbent Republican Governor barely won reelection in 1997, putting Woodbridge Democratic Mayor (and future Governor) James McGreevey down for the count, 46.87% to 45.82%.
6. Frank Lautenberg def. Andrew Maguire, Barbara Boggs Sigmund
This was the 1982 Democratic Primary for the United States Senate. There were ten candidates in the contest, and Lautenberg won with a plurality, taking 26% of the vote to Maguire’s 23%, LeFante’s 20% and Sigmund’s 11%.
5. Jon Corzine def. Bob Franks
In the 2000 U.S. Senate General election, outspent by $48 million by the former Goldman Sachs executive, Franks, a Republican Congressman from the 7th District, gave up his congressional seat to try to be a U.S. Senator and narrowly lost, 47.1% to 50.1%.
4. Chris Christie def. Jon Corzine
A lot of the core campaign guys who were with Franks resurfaced with Christie, who painted himself as a populist against an out-of-touch elitist incumbent int he general election for governor in 2009. Christie won, 48.5% to 44.9%.
3. Christie Todd Whitman def. Jim Florio
General election voters punished incumbent Democratic Governor Florio in the 1993 gubernatorial contest when they tapped Somerset County Freeholder Whitman, 49.33% to 48.29%.
2. Richard Hughes def. James P. Mitchell
The 1961 race for governor pitted Superior Court Judge Hughes of Mercer County against former U.S. Secretary of Labor Mitchell of Elizabeth. Mitchell was favored. Remember, the pendulum swing in the gubernatorial election away from the party that won the White House a year earlier. But then-President John F. Kennedy campaigned for Hughes at the War Memorial in Trenton and Hughes very narrowly (and surprisingly) defeated Mitchell 50.37-48.74%.
- Tom Kean def. Jim Florio
The closest gubernatorial general election on this list (and maybe in history), former Speaker of the Assembly Kean defeated U.S. Rep. Florio by a margin of 49.46 to 49.38% (1,145,999 to 1,144,202 votes). For more on this incredible 1981 race, please read this great piece by (former reporter) Trish Graber, who now works at the Senate Majority Office.
- Andrew Maguire
- Barbara Boggs Sigmund
- Bob Franks
- Brendan Byrne
- Charles Sandman
- Chris Christie
- Christie Todd Whitman
- Frank Lautenberg
- James McGreevey
- James P. Mitchell
- Jim Florio
- Jon Corzine
- Millicent Fenwick
- Ray Bateman
- Richard Hughes
- Steve Lonegan
- Tom Kean
- William Cahill
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