History against Murphy as he seeks second term

Corzine, Florio re-election losses show some parallels to 2021 race

By: - July 29, 2021 7:15 am
Governor Phil Murphy speaking

(Photo by Fran Baltzer for the New Jersey Monitor)

Despite New Jersey’s stature as a Democratic stronghold, governors belonging to the party haven’t won re-election since Gov. Brendan Byrne secured a second term in 1977.

That fact has taken a central role in Republican gubernatorial candidate Jack Ciattarelli’s messaging on the campaign trail, where he frequently urges voters to make Gov. Phil Murphy “one and done in ’21.”

Race raters consider Murphy a favorite for re-election, with the contest handicapped as a solid Democratic hold by the non-partisan Cook Political Report and a likely Democratic victory by Sabato’s Crystal Ball. Bill Stepien, who managed both of Chris Christie’s successful gubernatorial campaigns, acknowledged the difficulties Republicans face in statewide contests in New Jersey, adding there’s no guarantee of anything.

“There was a lot of concern about the future of the Republican Party in December of 2008, but we elected a Republican governor just 11 months later, so it can happen,” he said.

The sample size here is not large. Before Murphy, only two Democratic governors since Byrne ran for second terms — James Florio and Jon Corzine.

Taxed out of office

Florio, a Democrat who served three terms in the Legislature before resigning to mount a successful bid for Congress, ran more than half a million votes ahead of Rep. Jim Courter to win the governorship in 1989.

His fortunes reversed by 1993, when Christine Todd Whitman ousted him two years after tax hikes championed by Florio spurred a wave of Republican legislative victories. She won by a little more than 26,000 votes.

“Governor Whitman had promised a tax cut. I had implemented tax increases, so it was a fairly easy choice for some people,” Florio told the New Jersey Monitor.

The Florio tax hikes boosted income, sales and a bevy of excise tax rates in an effort to plug a hole in the state budget while cutting property taxes for middle and low-income residents.

The tax increases, aided by newly drawn 1991 legislative districts that were more favorable to the GOP, contributed to sweeping Republican victories that handed the party veto-proof majorities in both chambers.

But while they were “dramatic and unpopular,” the tax hikes’ impact on Florio’s own re-election has been sometimes overstated, said John Weingart, director of the Eagleton Center on the American Governor.

An assault weapons ban that remains among the strongest in the nation, signed by Florio early into his term, enflamed gun-rights advocates and brought the ire of the National Rifle Association.

“There’s the thought that there was a lot of money that came directly from or through the NRA that helped him be defeated,” Weingart said.

Those issues were touted by conservative commentators on New Jersey 101.5 to great effect, and partisan talk radio — then a relatively new phenomenon — caught the Democrat’s campaign flat-footed.

“101.5 emerged on the scene and mobilized a lot of anti-government feeling and specifically anti-Florio feeling, and that was new,” Weingart said. “The idea of talk radio being a major force supporting more conservative candidates was a new thing, and I think the Florio campaign was not sufficiently aware of the impact that could have or exactly how to fight against it.”

An aloof governor

Another Democratic governor would not seek re-election until 2009, but Corzine’s campaign against Christie would also end in Republican victory.

Corzine’s problems were distinct from Florio’s. The latter had spent nearly two decades in New Jersey politics before seeking the governorship, whereas Corzine had yet to finish his first term in the U.S. Senate before doing the same.

Corzine, who ran for governor a year after Democratic Gov. Jim McGreevey resigned over a hiring scandal involving a staffer with whom he had an affair, won his first contest over GOP businessman Doug Forrester by a little less than a quarter million votes. But the former Goldman Sachs executive received something of a frosty reception from New Jersey’s political class.

“I don’t mean to imply that Democratic party leaders did not support Jon Corzine, because they did. I just don’t think the enthusiasm was there for a variety of reasons,” said Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen), who ran for lieutenant governor on Corzine’s ticket in 2009.

Corzine was widely regarded as distant, and a lukewarm relationship with the legislature stalled many of his campaign promises. Though Weinberg praised him for his integrity and as a leader, she said “his personality was not made for New Jersey politics.”

Stepien said Republicans used Corzine’s “‘hold me accountable’ phraseology” against him by reminding voters he had failed to live up to his promises.

“New Jersey wasn’t more affordable. Taxes hadn’t gone down. Property taxes are the worst in the country. Those are just a few of the highlights to just how vulnerable he was,” Stepien said.

A doomed proposal that would have increased tolls on the New Jersey Turnpike and Garden State Parkway by a factor of eight did little to aid the incumbent, and an economy still slumped amid the Great Recession helped even less.

Christie didn’t face similar problems. He entered the race after a crackdown on corruption in state politics that led to convictions of top Democrats, including former Senate Budget Committee Chairman Wayne Bryant and former State Sen. and Newark Mayor Sharpe James.

Corzine’s less-than-inspiring oration skills drew another unfavorable comparison to his Republican opponent.

“Chris Christie was a very compelling candidate,” Weingart said. “He speaks very well. He had a very good, disciplined campaign and he came across as a nice, thoughtful, smart guy.”

Both Florio and Corzine lost their re-election bids in the first year of a Democratic presidential administration. Murphy finds himself in similar circumstances.

Unemployment surged during the pandemic and has yet to return to pre-COVID levels. Ciattarelli, a former assemblyman, is courting anti-mask and anti-vaccine groups animated by Murphy’s handling of the virus, and the governor may be forced to make politically difficult decisions on masking and vaccine mandates in the coming months.

Murphy has presided over a series of tax hikes, including bumps to taxes levied on businesses, millionaires and health management organizations, among others. The state’s gas tax rate is pegged to a $2 billion revenue target and can move up or down to hit its mark. It increased by 9.3 cents per gallon last year after the pandemic depressed gasoline sales.

Businesses have also raised alarms over an increase to their share of payroll taxes dedicated to the Unemployment Insurance Fund, which was depleted by sweeping joblessness during the COVID-19 crisis. Those increases will phase in over the next three fiscal years.

Unlike the Florio tax hikes, few of the rate bumps imposed under the Murphy administration directly impact middle and low-income residents.

Still, early polling and Democrats’ growing voter registration edge put the incumbent on more solid ground than his predecessors. He’ll also see a boost from tax rebate checks bearing his name, but none of that is insurmountable, especially in a traditionally low-turnout election.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Nikita Biryukov
Nikita Biryukov

Nikita Biryukov most recently covered state government and politics for the New Jersey Globe. His tenure there included revelatory stories on marijuana legalization, voting reform and Rep. Jeff Van Drew's decamp to the Republican Party. Earlier, he worked as a freelancer for The Home News Tribune and The Press of Atlantic City.