Nicholas M. Nikitas, a hotel operator, real estate developer, and Republican Party activist, declared his candidacy for Lieutenant Governor on January 12, 1986. At the time he entered the race, no one Republican had announced their candidacy for Governor.
Former Democratic Governor Edward J. King, now a member of the Republican party, declined to face Dukakis in a third consecutive election, citing personal and business reasons.
On March 13, lawyer and political activist Greg Hyatt became the first Republican to enter the gubernatorial race. A self-described "populist conservative", Hyatt supported limiting state taxes, bringing back the death penalty, and competency testing and merit pay for teachers. He opposed the state law that made wearing a seat belt mandatory, the use of roadblocks to crack down on drunken driving, and the use of public funds for abortions.
The convention nomination was won by Royall H. Switzler, a state representative who had been drafted by anti-Hyatt Republicans after former Congressman Paul W. Cronin decided not to enter the race. After a strong showing on the first ballot (891 votes for Hyatt, 775 votes for Switzler, 258 votes for Carbone), some of Hyatt's major supporters, including Ray Shamie and Papa Gino's founder Michael Valerio, announced that they would not oppose Switzler's nomination. On the second ballot, Switzler won the nomination with 975 votes to Hyatt's 876 and Carbone's 60. Despite losing the nomination, Hyatt chose to stay in the race and run against Switzler in the Republican primary.
Switzler dropped out of the race in June after inaccuracies about his military record were revealed. He had falsely claimed to be a member of the United States Army Special Forces and stated that he had fought in Vietnam when he had only visited Vietnam on leave from noncombat duty in Korea.
Hyatt dropped out of the race on July 14 amid accusations of forging names on his nomination papers, having ties to organized crime, and erratic personal behavior which included working nude in his office. 
Businessman and former Secretary of Economic Affairs George Kariotis entered the race after both candidates dropped out. Because the filing deadline for the election was on March 1, Hyatt and Switzler remained on the ballot while Kariotis was forced to run a write in campaign. Hyatt won the election, but he and Switzler, who finished second, declined the nomination and Kariotis was declared the nominee.