Former Rep. Michael J. Pappas is mulling a State Senate bid in the 16th district, setting up a potentially epic primary between two former congressmen in pursuit of a seat in the New Jersey Legislature.
Pappas has been discussing a possible political comeback with Central Jersey GOP leaders since Republican State Sen. Christopher Bateman announced on January 27 that he would not seek re-election to an eighth term.
“I have been approached to consider it and I am considering it,” Pappas told the New Jersey Globe.
The only announced GOP candidate for Bateman’s Senate seat is former Rep. Dick Zimmer, a 76-year-old anti-Donald Trump moderate who last won an election in 1994. Last summer, Zimmer was one of 27 former Republican U.S. Senators and House members to jump party lines and endorse Joe Biden on the first day of the Republican National Convention.
Now 60-years-old and the Bridgewater Township Administrator, Pappas is pondering his first run for office in more than two decades.
“The events of the last year have been challenging to everyone,” Pappas said. “State government’s response could have been better. There are a lot of people who are struggling with health and financial problems and there’s no end on sight. That’s a real concern to me.”
Pappas was a rising star in New Jersey politics. He was elected to the Franklin Township Council at age 21, became mayor at 22, and a Somerset County freeholder at age 24. He now lives in Branchburg.
He won an open House seat in 1996 when Zimmer left to run for the U.S. Senate. He beat State Senate Majority Leader John O. Bennett III by 1,175 votes (38%-34%) in the Republican primary, with then-Assemblyman Leonard Lance finishing third with 26%.
In the general election, Pappas defeated Lambertville Mayor David Del Vecchio by a 50.5%-46.6% margin.
His time in Congress ended abruptly in 1998 after he went on the House floor and sang “Twinkle, Twinkle, Kenneth Starr” in support of a special prosecutor investigating Bill and Hillary Clinton. The stunt backfired on Pappas, who lost 50%-47% to a virtually unknown Democrat, Rush Holt.
Several Republican leaders say that Zimmer is a non-starter for organization lines after his endorsement of Biden. His candidacy has left some Republicans in search of someone else to replace Bateman.
There would be some theater to a Zimmer vs. Pappas primary. There is bad blood between the two former Republican congressmen that goes back for the 20 years.
Both were strong campaigners. In the 1990s, Zimmer was viewed as a fiscal conservative and social moderate. Pappas was unabashedly conservative.
The two faced off in a Republican House primary 21 years ago as the two ex-congressmen sought the chance to take on Holt in the Republican-leaning 12th district.
That race turned particularly nasty, with a political action committee back Zimmer slamming Pappas in radio ads for his post-congressional employment to the Pillar of Fire’s International Christian Church. The church had been accused of having racist roots connected to the Ku Klux Klan 100 years ago. Zimmer denounced the ads, but not until after they damaged Pappas’ campaign.
Zimmer won organization lines in Hunterdon, Mercer, Middlesex, Monmouth, and Somerset counties and picked up endorsements from Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, U.S. Senator John McCain, and House Speaker Dennis Hastert.
Pappas was backed by House Majority Leader Dick Armey and Majority Whip Tom DeLay, and New Jersey Right to Life.
Zimmer beat Pappas by a 62%-38% margin. In the general election, Holt defeated Zimmer by just 651 votes, 48.7% to 48.5%.
In a letter of intent to party leaders, Zimmer expressed a willingness to also run for Assembly. That could make Pappas and Zimmer running mates, although that appears to be unlikely.
After his 2000 primary loss, Pappas joined President George W. Bush’ s administration and held a post at the U.S. Small Business Administration. He later returned to New Jersey and became the High Bridge borough administrator.
Zimmer ran for the U.S. Senate in 2008. He won the GOP primary by a 46%-40% margin against State Sen. Joseph Pennacchio, but lost the general election to 84-year-old Frank Lautenberg by 490,193 votes, 56%-42%.
Zimmer launched his political career with an unsuccessful Assembly bid in 1979. He won an Assembly seat two years later when Democrat Barbara McConnell (D-Flemington) gave up her seat to run for governor. Following the death of State Sen. Walter “Moose” Foran (R-Flemington) in 1987, Zimmer moved up to the State Senate.
If he wins, Zimmer will take office exactly 40 years after his first swearing in as a member of the New Jersey Legislature.
Zimmer’s candidacy could be viewed as a surrogacy of sorts for Republicans anxious to move away from Trump.
In 2016, Zimmer endorsed Ohio Gov. John Kasich for the Republican presidential nomination and ran on a statewide slate of delegates that included former Gov. Christine Todd Whitman.
Zimmer endorsed Libertarian Gary Johnson, the former Governor of New Mexico, in the 2016 general election.
Earlier last year, Zimmer endorsed former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld in a largely quixotic challenge to Trump for the 2020 Republican presidential nomination.
Somerset County has not elected a Democrat to the State Senate since 1902, but the county and the 16th legislative district have shifted heavily Democratic over the last six years.
Biden carried the 16th district by 28,165 votes, 61%-38%, over Trump. Both the Assembly seats in the district are occupied by Democrats, and all countywide offices in Somerset are held by Democrats.
The 16th has 20,732 more Democrats than Republicans.
The leading candidate to take Bateman’s seat is Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker (D-South Brunswick), a Rush Holt protégé.
Zwicker’s greatest obstacle right now is Somerset County Democratic Chair Peg Schaffer, who wants a senator from her county so that she can wield the power of senatorial courtesy. Zwicker lives in Middlesex.