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Former U.S. Senator Bob Torricelli

78% of successful House challengers were political unknowns

For open seats, it’s the opposite: 96% had previously held public office

By David Wildstein, May 11 2020 3:16 pm

In a race for Congress, New Jerseyans are historically more likely to vote for someone they had never really heard of against an incumbent Member of Congress than they are to go with someone who has been winning elections for years.

Over the last 50 years, 78% of the candidates who unseated incumbent members of the U.S. House of Representatives from New Jersey were political newcomers who had never won a partisan general election.

Most of the successful challengers who were able to win against incumbents were people who wouldn’t have made a short list two years earlier, like former White House staffers Josh Gottheimer, Tom Malinowski, Andy Kim, or former NFL star Jon Runyan.

While Mike Sherrill never actually faced an incumbent – Rodney Frelinghuysen dropped his re-election bid eight months after the former Navy helicopter pilot and federal prosecutor entered the race – she fits the same description: a new face the incumbent had never heard of on their last successful election night.  (Sherill is not counted in the 78%).

Physicist Rush Holt had won just 24% in a 1996 Democratic House primary, but then beat freshman Rep. Michael Pappas two years later.

New Jersey has not beaten an incumbent congressman with a  veteran officeholder since 1996, although six Members of Congress have gone down to defeat during that time period.

Just three sitting legislators have defeated an incumbent congressman since 1970: Assemblymen Jim Florio against Rep. John Hunt in 1974, Dean Gallo vs. Joe Minish in 1984, and Bill Pascrell against Rep. Bill Martini in 1996.  Martini was a Passaic County Freeholder when he took on freshman Rep. Herb Klein in 1994.

Besides Florio, the other three Democrats who took out Republican incumbents in 1974 had never held public office: Bill Hughes had been the assistant Cape May County prosecutor when he wrestled a House seat from Charles Sandman; Andy Maguire, who beat William Widnall, had served on President Lyndon Johnson’s White House staff; and Helen Meyer, who defeated Joseph Maraziti, was a former First Lady of New Jersey.

Harold Hollenbeck had been out of the State Senate for three years when he unseated Democrat Henry Helstoski in 1976, and Jim Courter used his job as assistant Warren County prosecutor to launch his successful campaign to take out Meyner in 1978.

A pair of Republicans who flipped House seats in 1980 rematches were virtually unknown when they lost in 1978: Christopher Smith was the executive director of New Jersey Right to Life when he defeated Frank Thompson, and Marge Roukema had been a school board member in Ridgewood before unseating Maguire.

Bob Torricelli had served on the staffs of Gov. Brendan Byrne and Vice President Walter Mondale before defeating Hollenbeck in 1982.

The math on open seats is overwhelmingly in the opposite direction: 92% had previously held public office – the only first-time officeholders to win an open congressional seat were Michael Ferguson in 2000, and Sherrill.  Of the rest, 79% had served in the New Jersey Legislature at one point and 17% had held countywide elected office.

Editor’s Note: Tom MacArthur is counted as a former elected official – he had been mayor of Randolph in Morris County before moving to the 3rd district to run for an open seat.

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