Home>Campaigns>N.J. hasn’t tossed an incumbent U.S. Senator in a general in 78 years

U.S. Senator William H. Smathers, Democrat of New Jersey during a meeting of the Senate Banking and Currency Committee in 1939. Photo by Harris & Ewing, courtesy of the Library of Congress.

N.J. hasn’t tossed an incumbent U.S. Senator in a general in 78 years

Incumbents have gone 17-0 since William Smathers lost his Senate seat in 1942

By David Wildstein, April 22 2020 2:19 pm

Democrat Cory Booker has some factors working for him as he seeks re-election to the United States Senate this year: strong favorables from the gold standard of independent pollsters; more than $2 million raised less than three months after ending his bid for the presidency; and history.

From the historical angle, here are the two talking points:

* New Jersey hasn’t defeated an incumbent U.S. Senator in a general election since 1942, 78 years ago.
* New Jersey hasn’t elected a Republican to the U.S. Senate since 1972, 48 years ago.

Since Republican Albert Hawkes unseated freshman William Smathers in 1942, all seventeen incumbents who ran for re-election in general elections have won.  One Senator, Clifford Case, lost his bid for renomination in the 1978 GOP primary; Case is the only incumbent since New Jersey began directly electing U.S. Senators in 1910, to lose a primary election.

Only four states — Kansas, Mississippi, South Carolina and Vermont — have gone longer than New Jersey without a U.S. Senator losing a general election.  Hawaii, which entered the union in 1959, has never ousted an incumbent.

Incumbents are 17-0 in general elections for Senate since Smathers lost his bid for a second term.

Case was New Jersey’s last elected Republican U.S. Senator, although two other Republicans, Nicholas Brady (1982) and Jeff Chiesa (2013), both represented New Jersey after they were appointed as caretakers by a Republican governor.

Democrats are 16-0 in New Jersey U.S. Senate races since Case won his fourth term in 1972 by 780,101 votes (62%-35%) against former Rep. Paul J. Krebs (D-Livingston).

Only Hawaii has gone longer without electing a Republican to the U.S. Senate than New Jersey. That was in 1970; Democrats flipped the seat when Republican Hiram Fong retire in 1976.

There are some asterisks here: in 2002, Republican Douglas Forrester had taken the lead in several polls against the incumbent U.S. Senator before Bob Torricelli dropped his re-election bid and Democrat Frank Lautenberg held the seat.

The most popular elected official in New Jersey, Bill Bradley, nearly lost his bid for a third term in 1990 against the expected sacrificial lamb, Republican Christine Todd Whitman.

Bradley had a 47-point lead over Whitman, 64%-17%, in a July 29 Star-Ledger/Eagleton poll.

The former New York Knicks star had 96% name identification and had job approvals of 61%-9% after twelve years in the U.S. Senate.  Whitman’s name ID was 24%, and he favorables were at 5%-1%.

What happened over the next three months was nothing short of incredible.

New Jersey voters became so enraged by Gov. Jim Florio’s $2.8 billion tax increase that they took it out on the first person they saw in the next election.

Despite being outspent 12-1, Whitman adeptly linked the Democratic governor with the Democratic U.S. Senator.  When she asked Bradley over and over where he stood on Florio’s tax increases, the senator insisted that he was not a candidate for state office and refused to answer.

Bradley won the election, but by just three percentage points, 40%-47%, defeating Whitman by a mere 58,936 votes.

He got another six years in the U.S. Senate, but after blowing a 47-point lead, he was no longer viewed as a leading candidate to challenge President George Bush in 1992. That mantle when to a Democrat from across the Hudson, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, and the nomination went to another centrist Democrat, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton.

Whitman’s near upset in the U.S. Senate race catapulted her into the governorship three years later.

Two years ago, U.S. Senator Bob Menendez was re-elected by a 54%-43% margin despite Republican Bob Hugin spending over $40 million, most of it his own.

New Jersey now has nearly one million more Democrats than Republicans.  The last time a Republican won a statewide race in New Jersey, 2013, the Democratic registration edge was 732,706.  That number is more than double New Jersey’s Democratic registration edge of 357,204 in 1992.

Booker has job approval ratings of 51%-31%, according to a Monmouth University poll released on Tuesday.

A Monmouth Poll testing Booker in head-to-head match-ups with two potential Republican challengers, Rik Mehta and Hirsh Singh, will be released tomorrow.

Editor’s note: an earlier version of this story incorrectly listed Hawaii as one of the states that has gone longer than New Jersey in tossing an incumbent U.S. Senator.  Hawaii was not admitted to the union until 1959.

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