Robert A. Davis, the Republican candidate for Congress in New Jersey’s 11th district, died on August 10. He was 85.
A longtime conservative activist, Davis among the early organizers of Ronald Reagan’s 1976 presidential campaign in New Jersey against the incumbent, Gerald Ford.
His 1980 campaign was against Rep. Joseph G. Minish (D-West Orange), a former labor leader who was seeking his tenth term in the U.S. House of Representatives.
The 11th district then was mostly Essex County, but included North Arlington in Bergen, West Paterson (now Woodland Park) and Little Falls in Passaic, and Hillside in Union. After 1972 congressional redistricting gave next-door Rep. Peter W. Rodino (D-Newark) a Black-majority seat, the Minish district was largely white and blue collar.
Ford had carried the district against Jimmy Carter in 1976 by a 51%-49% margin. Minish ran 37-points ahead of Carter in his race against Republican Charles Poekel, Jr., a young attorney who mounted a hugely aggressive race against a popular incumbent.
Davis campaigned as a Reagan loyalist, but raised just $17,068 and was outspent by a nearly 5-1 margin.
While Reagan carried the 11th by a 50%-40% margin, Minish beat Davis by 48,383 votes, 63%-34%.
In 1982, Davis sought a rematch with Davis in a newly-drawn 11th district that added more of South Bergen and part of Morris County and was arguably just slightly more Republican.
Essex County Republicans gave their organization line to Rowley “Rey” Reddington, a Montclair businessman. Reddington defeated Frank Bell by 1,353 votes, 39%-33%, with Davis running third with 28% of the vote – 2,406 votes behind Reddington.
Davis had become active in politics in the 1960s and became chairman of the Essex County Young Republicans and Verona GOP Municipal Chairman. He also spent five years in the New Jersey National Guard.
In 1974, Davis ran for Essex County Republican Chairman against incumbent Frederic Remington and another challenger, East Orange GOP Municipal Chairman (and 1956 Republican congressional candidate) Chester Ligham. Ligham was backed by Joseph Intile, a legendary Essex insider who ran a substantial faction of the county GOP.
Remington beat Ligham by a vote of 336 to 247. Davis finished third, receiving just four votes.
Davis ran for Essex County Supervisor – a job that was eliminated when the county executive post was created in three years later – in 1975. He was defeated in the Republican primary by Dr. John F. Donato. (Donato ran as an independent candidate for governor in 1977.)
In 1977, Davis sought a return to the Republican County Committee in Verona. Running on a line headed by GOP gubernatorial candidate (and former State Senator) C. Robert Sarcone, he lost to the organization-backed incumbent, Edward Conlon. Still, Davis spent decades as a county committeeman.
Davis worked as an telephone line installer for New Jersey Bell and AT&T – he often made political calls while standing on top of a telephone poll and plugging into a phone line – before opening his own private telephone installation company.
His daughter, Bobbi Joan Bennett, was the Republican nominee for New Jersey State Senate against incumbent Richard J. Codey in 2003 and lost, 66%-34%.
In addition to his daughter, he is survived by his wife, Joan, sons Allen and Steven, nine grandchildren and twelve great-grandchildren. He was predeceased by his son, Robert A. Davis, Jr., and his grandson, Steven D. Bennett, USMCR.