The top three Republican leaders in the U.S. House of Representatives have endorsed Rep. Christopher Smith for re-election in New Jersey’s 4th district, a move that makes a primary challenge against the 21-term incumbent more difficult.
“Chris Smith is a bold and effective legislator for the people of New Jersey in the United States House of Representatives,” said House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy.
Joining McCarthy, who is the leading candidate for Speaker if the GOP wins a majority in the upcoming mid-term elections, in backing Smith for another term are House Minority Whip Steve Scalise and Republican Conference Chair Elise Stefanik.
Under a Democratic redistricting map approved last month, Smith’s hometown of Hamilton was placed in the 3rd district with Rep. Andy Kim (D-Moorestown). Smith had said he will seek re-election in his district, where he has already represented about 80% of voters in the past.
“Chris is a tenacious advocate for unborn children and the rights of humanity,” McCarthy said.
“He demands accountability from China, protects our national borders and sovereignty, and tirelessly works to identify solutions for autism and Alzheimer’s disease.”
Scalise called Smith “a true fighter.”
“Standing true to his principles, Chris knows how to protect our Nation’s treasured values, champion a strong economy, and stand up for the rights that make America the beacon of freedom for the world,” he said.
In a statement, Stefanik called Smith a “trailblazer who has led the way in protecting women and children in the U.S. and around the globe from the heinous crime of human trafficking.
“He has also created significant programs for our Nation’s veterans, families faced with autism, and seniors struggling with Alzheimer’s,” said Stefanik.
The support of the Republican leadership contrasts a call by former President Donald Trump to primary lawmakers who supporter a $1 trillion infrastructure bill passed by Congress last year.
Smith has displayed an independent streak since ousting 13-term Rep. Frank Thompson, Jr. (D-Trenton) in 1980, but twice voted against Trump’s impeachment.
Save Jersey has reported that conservative podcaster Michael Crispi will announce this week his bid to challenge Smith in the June GOP primary and that political strategist Roger Stone will lead his campaign.
Stone has played a role in New Jersey campaigns since he was Tom Kean’s consultant in the 1981 race for governor.
The 28-year-old Crispi ran for Morris County Freeholder in 2017 but lost the GOP primary.
Rev. Shawn Hyland, the former executive director of the Family Policy Alliance of New Jersey, switched from a bid to challenge Kim to a primary against Smith after his hometown in Ocean County was redistricted.
Four other Republicans are already challenging Smith: Englishtown Councilman Daniel Francisco, realtor and U.S. Army veteran Mike Blasi, David Burg, a former head of litigation for NBCUniversal, and perennial candidate Tricia Flanagan. Englishtown is now in the 3rd district.
The 68-year-old Smith is a senior member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
“I am grateful for the support and friendship of these extraordinary Republican leaders,” Smith stated. “President Biden and the democrat controlled congress have been a disaster and I am eager to be part of the next Republican congress and the restoration of a strong, respected United States of America.”
The new 4th district is more Republican than the current one. Last November, Gov. Phil Murphy lost the district by more than 30 points.
Smith became the longest-serving congressman in New Jersey history on January 3, 2021, surpassing the 20-term tenure of House Judiciary Committee Chairman Peter W. Rodino (D-Newark). Still, he is younger than five other New Jersey House members, including freshman Rep. Jeff Van Drew (D-Dennis).
Frequently underestimated, Smith will now seek his 22nd term in a district that has been redrawn seven times since he first won the seat as a 27-year-old Republican in 1980.
Smith was 25 when he challenged Thompson, the chairman of the powerful House Administration Committee, in 1978. He lost by 24 points.
Undeterred, Smith ran again in 1980.
Thompson was implicated in the FBI sting operation known as Abscam, when an undercover agent pretending to be an Arab sheik offered the congressman a cash bribe to help him circumvent federal immigration laws.
This time, Smith won. He beat Thompson by 26,967 votes, a 47%-41% margin.
When Smith ran for a second term in 1982, he faced the strongest possible opponent: Joe Merlino, a 60-year-old, cigar chomping former State Senate President who saw going to Congress as sort of a consolation prize after losing a race for governor one year earlier.
The old 4th district was a middle-class, Democratic leaning district that included mostly Mercer and Middlesex counties, with small parts in Burlington and Monmouth. Jimmy Carter had won 54% in the old 4th in 1976, and Smith received just 38% when he ran against 12-term incumbent Frank Thompson in 1978. In 1980, after Thompson was indicted in the Abscam scandal, Smith won with 57%.
Back in the days when the Legislature drew congressional districts, Merlino had a heavy hand in redrawing the 4th to make it even more Democratic. The map was drawn during the lame-duck session of the 1981 Legislature, while Merlino was still Senate President. Democratic Gov. Brendan Byrne signed the map just before Republican Tom Kean succeeded him.
Smith’s hometown, Old Bridge, was dropped, along with other southern Middlesex towns that he had won. Instead, it went down the Delaware River through Burlington and picked up Pennsauken in Camden County.
Comparing apples to apples, the old 4th gave Reagan a 47%-44% win against Carter; Carter had beaten Reagan 47%-45% in the new district.
While Merlino was given the early edge, Smith worked hard — and fought hard.
One memorable Smith TV ad contrasted the Merlino image as an old-fashioned backroom politician. It had a lit cigar in an ashtray in a room full of smoke, along with voices of people saying they didn’t approve of “Boss Merlino” distorting Smith’s record. The ad then cut to an energetic Smith campaigning as other voices explained why they liked their congressman.
Merlino’s most unforgettable TV ad was shot in black-and-white as an imitation of the film “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” The ad shows a youthful vagabond hitchhiking as a voice-over attacks Smith. That was followed by the actor playing Smith getting kicked down the Capitol steps with the narrator urging voters to kick Smith out of Washington and replace him with Merlino.
Republicans got actor Jimmy Stewart who played Mr. Smith in the movie, to issue a statement slamming Merlino.
“When I played Mr. Smith in that picture, I did not think he was a naive hick,” Stewart said. “I thought he believed in honesty and integrity in government, the right of the people and the love of his country.”
Stewart applauded Smith’s record as a first-term congressman – “I hope you win,” he said – and Merlino pulled the ad that had clearly backfired.
Smith won that 1982 race by 10,002 votes, 53%-47%. He won Hamilton, where he moved so he could live within the boundaries of the new district, by about the same margin.
Since his first election, Smith has run under six different maps and has represented parts of Middlesex, Mercer, Burlington, Camden, Monmouth and Ocean counties in Congress.
In his most recent re-election against Democrat Stephanie Schmid, Smith won by 91,683 votes, 60%-38%.