If Tom Malinowski unseats Leonard Lance in New Jersey’s 7th district, he’ll become the first Democrat to hold the seat since 1956. The district, albeit in various configurations, is the seat the Republicans have held the longest in the state.
The last Democratic congressman was Harrison Williams, who won a 1953 special election after Republican Clifford Case resigned from Congress to take a job with the Ford Foundation. Case, elected in 1944, had sought the Republican nomination for Governor in 1953, but dropped out after party leaders went with another candidate.
Williams was 33 and had already lost races for State Assembly and Plainfield City Councilman. But Williams proved to be a skilled candidate, and with Democrat Robert Meyner carrying Union County in the gubernatorial race, he eked out a 2,705-vote win (50.7%) over Plainfield Mayor George Hetfield.
In 1954, Williams won 56%-42% against a Republican Assemblyman. But in 1956, with Dwight Eisenhower heading the GOP ticket, Assemblywoman Florence Dwyer beat him by 4,399 votes (50.6%).
Dwyer held the seat easily until she retired in 1972. She was succeeded by State Sen. Matthew Rinaldo, who stayed around for twenty years and easily won the only strong challenge he faced. Rinaldo decided to retire after he won the 1992 primary – any Congressman who stayed beyond ’92 would no longer be able to convert leftover campaign funds for personal use and Rinaldo had over $1 million in his warchest. Assemblyman Bob Franks served four terms before running for the U.S. Senate.
After Franks, Republican Mike Ferguson won four times – two of them after tough races against Maryanne Connelly and Linda Stender. When Ferguson left in 2008, Lance won a competitive race against Stender and then won re-election four times.
One more thing, for extreme political junkies: Case ran for an open seat in 1944 after six-term Republican Rep. Donald McLean retired. McLean had started off as a U.S. Senate page and served as secretary (the post now known as Chief of Staff) to U.S. Senator John Kean. Williams, after losing re-election to the House in 1956, ran for an open U.S. Senate seat in 1958 – a Democratic wave year nationally – and beat Kean’s nephew, Rep. Robert Kean, the father of the future governor.