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U.S. Senator Frank R. Lautenberg in 1985. (Photo: Bernard Gotfyrd/Library of Congress).

How U.S. Senators from New Jersey fare against primary challengers

Clifford Case, a four-term Republican, is the only incumbent U.S. Senator to lose a primary election in N.J.

By David Wildstein, March 01 2023 5:04 am

Roselle Park Mayor Joseph Signorello is not the first person to have held elective office to challenge a sitting United States Senator in a primary election.

In 1988, when Frank Lautenberg was seeking his second term, he faced a challenger from former Hudson County  Freeholder Elnardo Webster.

Webster, best known as a college basketball star at St. Peter’s College, headed an insurgent slate in Hudson County that included congressional candidate Robert Haney and Rev. R.L. Williams, a Jersey City minister challenging County Clerk Frank Rodgers.  Rodgers was also the mayor of Harrison (he held that post from 1946 to 1995) and the Democratic county chairman.  The slate was supporting Rev. Jesse Jackson for president.

The challenge to Lautenberg was not a serious statewide campaign.  After one term, Webster lost a freeholder primary in the Hudson County Democratic Civil War of 1987.  He hardly spent any money and didn’t campaign outside of Hudson.

“I really can’t lose…because most people don’t expect me to win,” Webster told legendary Jersey Journal political reporter Pete Weiss.  “By taking on a giant, even if you just nick him, you win.  And at the same time, I’m aiding Jesse Jackson.”

Lautenberg defeated Webster by a 78%-12% margin in a three-way race.  In Hudson County, Lautenberg won, 61%-21%.   Michael Dukakis won Hudson with 69% of the vote, but in Jersey City, Jackson won Ward F and held Dukakis to a 2,104 vote win, 51%-44% win.

Williams in 1970

When U.S. Senator Harrison Williams, Jr. sought a third term in 1970, he faced a primary challenge from State Sen. Frank Guarini (D-Jersey City).

U.S. Senator Harrison Williams at the 1976 Democratic National Convention. Ace Alagna collection courtesy of the Monsignor William Noé Field Archives & Special Collections Center, Seton Hall University Libraries, South Orange.

A decade before the Abscam scandal that ended his career, Williams had been censured by the New Jersey NAACP for being drunk at a meeting where he was the main speaker.  Former New Jersey Attorney General Arthur Sills, who was supporting Guarini, attacked Williams for his alcoholism, a move that backfired after the Democratic Senator had acknowledged his drinking problem.

Williams had never been especially popular in Hudson County.  When he first ran for the Senate in 1958, his primary challenger was Hoboken Mayor John J. Grogan.  Williams won statewide by 12,803 votes, 43.1% to 39.5%; Grogan won 63% in Hudson and carried Atlantic, Camden, and Hunterdon counties.

Guarini, who had won two Democratic primaries for State Senate with the support of the Hudson County Democratic organization, made a bid for an open primary.  He essentially sought to end New Jersey’s system of preferential ballot positions for organization-backed candidates more than fifty years ago, but without success.

He did that with the support of John V. Kenny, the Hudson boss who had split from most of the state’s Democratic establishment when he refused to back former Gov. Robert Meyner’s bid to return to the governorship in 1969.  Republican Bill Cahill carried Hudson by fifteen percentage points.

With just the Hudson organization line, Guarini lost to Williams by 90,647 votes, a 66%-34% race.  Guarini carried only Hudson County – he scored a 16,194-vote plurality (62%-38%) – and Williams won everywhere else.

With just the Hudson organization line, Guarini lost to Williams by 90,647 votes, a 66%-34% race.  Guarini carried only Hudson County – he scored a 16,194-vote plurality (62%-38%) – and Williams won everywhere else.

Lautenberg in 2008

The most significant primary challenge to a Democratic U.S. Senator came in 2008 when Rep. Rob Andrews (D-Haddon Heights) took on Lautenberg, then 84-years-old.

Morristown Mayor Donald Cresitello, one of Lautenberg’s primary opponents in 1982 (he finished tenth with 1%), also got into the race.

U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg, left, at the wedding of Assembly Majority Whip Carol Murphy and Democratic strategist Michael Muller. (Photo: Carol Murphy).

Andrews was a late entry into the race and started with the backing of seven South Jersey counties.  Democratic powerhouse George Norcross, never a big Andrews fan, put together a coalition that was supposed to include the Bergen County Democratic organization line.

But the county chairman at the time, Joseph Ferriero, backed off his support for Andrews after Rep. Steve Rothman (D-Fair Lawn) said he would run off-the-line with Lautenberg.  State Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Teaneck), recruiting Democratic county committee candidates, was prepared to run that slate with Lautenberg and Rothman.

Lautenberg made Andrews’ support of the war in Iraq a big part of his strategy in a campaign managed by a young Democratic operative, Brendan Gill.  Andrew slammed Lautenberg on his age.

The primary was won by Lautenberg, who beat Andrews by 81.235 votes, 49%-35%, with Cresitello finishing third at 6%.

Lautenberg scored lopsided victories in Bergen (79%), Essex (76%), Hudson (75%), Union (67%), and Middlesex (62%).  Andrews won only the seven South Jersey counties, with 80% in Camden and Glouceste and

But in other parts of South Jersey, Lautenberg remained competitive.  Andrews won Cumberland by one percentage point, Cape May by four points, Atlantic by five points, and Burlington by 9 points.

In Ocean County, where Democratic congressional candidate John Adler (D-Cherry Hill), the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, eschewed the organization line and ran with Andrews, Lautenberg won 58%-33%.   The county chairman at the time, Teamster union head Fred Potter, had stuck with the incumbent.

Favorite son Cresitello won 11% in Morris County, where Lautenberg bested Andrews by a 65%-24% margin.   He did better in Sussex (17%) and Warren (21%).

Andrews had a Plan B for his Senate bid: his wife, Camille, won the Democratic primary for his 1st district House seat; she dropped out after the primary so Andrews could return to Congress.

Case in 1978

The only U.S. Senator to lose a primary in New Jersey was four-term incumbent Clifford Case, a 74-year-old Republican first elected in 1954. He lost his bid for renomination in 1978 to conservative Jeff Bell, a 35-year-old speechwriter for Ronald Reagan’s 1976 presidential campaign.

While working for Reagan, Bell had learned a few things about direct mail fundraising and thought he could raise enough money from national conservative donor lists to make it a race.  Six years earlier, Case had been re-elected to a fourth term by 780,281 votes (62%-35%).  But an unknown conservative with no financial support had still won 30% against Case in the 1972 Republican primary.

U.S. Senator Clifford P. Case, the last Republican to win a U.S. Senate seat from New Jersey, and Assembly Minority Leader Thomas H. Kean on the floor of the 1976 Republican National Convention in Kansas City. (Photo: Clifford P. Case Archives, Rutgers University).

Case had the age factor playing – back then, voters viewed 74 as older than they do today.  But Bell, who has a history of civility in his three statewide campaigns, didn’t go at Case on the age issue as Alphonse D’Amato did against Jacob Javits two years later in New York.  Instead, he talked about Case being out of touch with New Jersey.

Bell sought to portray Case as a liberal in a Republican primary where conservatives were increasing.  He pointed out that the Americans for Democratic Action (ADA), which advocated policies of the left side of the Democratic party, rated Case at 90%.  Of the 100 members of the United States Senate, only Ted Kennedy earned a higher score.  That put Case to the left of Senators like George McGovern.

Case had also voted with President Jimmy Carter more than any other Republican Senator.  This was Carter’s mid-term election; ultimately, five Democratic U.S. Senators lost re-election that year, and the GOP had a net gain of eight seats.

Bell campaigned in support of lower income taxes and smaller government and opposition to the sale of the Panama Canal, a hotbed issue for many Republicans.  A January 1978 Rutgers-Eagleton poll showed 38% of New Jerseyans approving the sale and 47% disapproving. Case voted for the sale.

Case had the support of national and state labor unions and was a heavy favorite to win a fifth term.  A May 1978 Rutgers-Eagleton poll showed that 19% of New Jersey voters thought Case was a Democrat, 40% believed he was a Republican, and 40% didn’t know.  The same poll had case leading Bradley by twelve points, 44%-32%.

In the primary, Case didn’t take the Bell challenge seriously.  He had been endorsed by the Republican National Committee and by most of the state’s GOP establishment.

The first sign that Case was in trouble was in April when the Salem County Republican organization voted overwhelmingly to endorse Bell, who had the support of Republican county chairman Peter deWilde.  Republican State Committeeman Bob Stanley of Monmouth County, a premier GOP fundraiser in the 1970s, became part of Bell’s fundraiser team. It was the state’s smallest county, and Case barely noticed when he had lost the organization line.

Bell got a considerable boost when Rep. Jack Kemp (R-New York), who had become a leader of the national conservative movement, endorsed him.  This was a big deal because it was the first time Kemp had campaigned and fundraised for a candidate challenging an incumbent in a primary.  Kemp had stumped for Rep. John Anderson (R-Illinois) in a primary against a conservative opponent a month earlier.

Jeff Bell in 2014. (Photo: Bell for Senate).

Later on, columnist William F. Buckley endorsed Bell in his nationally-syndicated column, which substantially boosted the national fundraising abilities of the first-time candidate.  Bell also had the active support of neocon Jude Wanniski, who lost his job as a deputy editor of the Wall Street Journal for distributing Bell leaflets at a North Jersey train station.  He also attracted the backing of publisher Steve Forbes, Goldman Sachs Co-Chairman John Whitehead, and C. Douglas Dillon, who had served as U.S. Secretary of the Treasury under President John F. Kennedy.  The Bell campaign ran TV ads touting Kennedy’s support of tax cuts.

An enormously low voter turnout enabled Bell to eke out a 3,473-vote win against Case, who had the organization lines everywhere but Salem.

Bell won in Bergen, Cumberland, Essex, Gloucester, Hunterdon, Monmouth, Morris, Salem, Somerset, Sussex, Union (Case’s home county), and Warren. Case carried Atlantic, Burlington, Camden, Cape May, Hudson, Mercer, Middlesex, Ocean, and Passaic.

Case, who finished the primary with a considerable warchest still unspent, conceded defeat without a pledge to back the Republican nominee.

“I like Jeff Bell very much, but I don’t know if I can support him,” Case said.

Democrats nominated Bradley, seeking his first public office after a Hall of Fame NBA career with the New York Knicks.  When Bradley played basketball at Princeton in 1965, Bell was the radio sports broadcaster for Columbia.  Princeton beat Columbia in both games that season.

Bradley beat Bell by twelve points, 55%-43%, with a plurality of 238,760.  Bell carried only Cape May (barely, by 350 votes), Hunterdon, Morris, Ocean (by just 1,661 votes), and Somerset.

Edge in 1924

In 1924, Republican National Committeeman Hamilton Fish Kean challenged freshman U.S. Senator Walter Edge, a former governor, in the primary.   During the Prohibition era, Edge was considered a “wet” Republican, and Kean was “dry.”

Edge won by roughly 62,000 votes, 57%-43%.  He carried eleven counties – Atlantic, Bergen, Camden, Cape May, Essex, Gloucester, Hudson, Mercer, Middlesex, Passaic, and Union.

Kean, the great-grandfather of Rep. Thomas Kean, Jr. (R-Westfield), defeated Democratic U.S. Senator Edwin Edwards in 1928.

Edge defeated Trenton Mayor Frederick Donnelly in the general election.  He later left the Senate to become U.S. Ambassador to France and returned for one more term as governor in 1943.

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