Somerset County had been a Republican bulwark in New Jersey politics for as long as anyone has been alive, but the retirement of Kip Bateman gives Democrats a chance, if not an edge, to win their first State Senate election since Samuel S. Childs was elected in 1902.
Childs, a restaurateur from Bernardsville, ousted Republican incumbent Joseph S. Frelinghuysen, by 312 votes, a 52%-48% margin.
Democratic control of the Somerset County Senate seat lasted just three years.
Frelinghuysen forced a rematch in 1905 and beat him by 1,056 votes, 57%-43%.
A cousin of the Morris County Frelinghuysen’s, he had served as Somerset County GOP Chairman. He became Senate President in his second stint in Trenton and won a U.S. Senate seat in 1916. He lost re-election in 1922.
Republicans were the dominant political party in Somerset, but there were factions.
In 1947, former Assembly Speaker Freas Hess, who worked at the Johns-Manville factory, was elected to the State Senate.
When he sought re-election four years later, magazine publisher Malcolm Forbes self-financed a challenge to Hess in the 1951 Republican primary. Running off the line, Forbes defeated Hess by 3,923 votes, 62%-38%.
The Battle of the Billionaires occurred in 1955 when Forces was challenged by industrialist Charles Engelhard.
Forbes had sought the GOP nomination for Governor in 1953 and Democrats were trying to derail a free-spending challenge to incumbent Robert Meyner in 1957.
Records weren’t kept of campaign spending in those days but adjusted to inflation might have been the most expensive state legislative race in New Jersey history.
According to Joe Donohue, the deputy executive director of the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission, Engelhard “was the inspiration for James Bond villain Auric Goldfinger.”
“At one point, he reportedly campaigned on his yacht up the Raritan River wearing a white naval uniform,” Donohue reported.
Donohue, in a white paper for ELEC, said that “Engelhardt bought an entire weekly newspaper, the Somerville Star, and turned it into a daily during the campaign to compete with Forbes’s own newspaper, the Messenger Gazette.”
Forbes won it after a recount by 370 votes, 19,981 to 19,611, 50.5% to 49.5%.
As expected., Forbes did run for governor in 1957. Meyner beat him by 203,809 votes, 54.5% to 44.5%.
The following year, one of Forbes’s campaign staffers, 31-year-old Raymond H. Bateman, ran in a special election for State Assembly and won.
Forbes did not seek re-election to the State Senate in 1959 and was replaced by Assemblyman William E. Ozzard.
Ozzard defeated Democrat William Sutherland by a 57%-43% margin and was re-elected in 1963 by a 59%-41% margin over Democrat John Carlin.
On the coattails of Lyndon B. Johnson, Democrats won seats of the Somerset County Board of Freeholders in 1964.
In 1965, Ozzard almost lost his Senate seat.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s one-man, one-vote decision required New Jersey to draw new legislative districts. Prior to that, each county had one senator and the State Assembly was apportioned based on population.
The new map created one Senate seat for Somerset and Hunterdon counties. (Somerset had voting machines in 1965, but Hunterdon still used paper ballots.)
Serving as the Senate Majority Leader, Ozzard faced a challenge from Democrat Arthur Meredith, a former Somerset County Prosecutor.
Ozzard alleged that Engelhard was funding Meredith’s campaign because the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, where Englehardt was a commissioner, was considering a new airport in Readington. Ozzard opposed the airport.
Somerset went blue for the second year in a row in 1965. Gov. Richard J. Hughes won the county by 2,452 votes over Republican State Sen. Wayne Dumont, and Democrats took control of the freeholder board
Ozzard survived, but just narrowly. He won by 411 votes, 50.3% to 49.7%.
When the Senate seat came up two years later, Ozzard didn’t run again; he sought the Republican nomination for governor in 1969 and finished last in a field of five candidates with 4.5% of the vote. He did carry Somerset, by a 45%-22% margin over Charles Sandman. William Cahill, who was elected governor that year, finished third with 17%.
Bateman replaced Ozzard in the Senate in 1967 and won with 68% of the vote. He won 71% when he sought a second term in 1971. He served as Senate President for two years.
When a Watergate-related Democratic wave swept New Jersey in 1973 – Republicans emerged with just 10 seats in the State Senate – Bateman still won with 64%.
In 1977, Bateman left the Senate to run for governor. He won the GOP primary by a 55%-36% margin over Assembly Minority Leader Thomas Kean but lost his lead in the general election against Gov. Brendan Byrne and was defeated by a 56%-42% margin.
Bateman’s successor in the Senate was John Ewing, a former Abercrombie & Fitch CEO and Somerset freeholder. Ewing had replaced Bateman in the Assembly a decade earlier.
Ewing had predicted great things for himself. He said he had succeeded Bateman as an assemblyman, would take is Senate seat, and probably run for governor in 1985 when Bateman’s eight years were over.
In the general election, Ewing won the Senate seat with 65% of the vote. He never ran for governor but spent 20 years in the Senate before retiring in 1997.
Walter Kavanaugh, a hugely likeable Republican who spent 22 years in the State Assembly – some of it waiting for Ewing to retire – won the State Senate seat in 1997.
Kip Bateman, who had entered politics at a young age as a Branchburg councilman and mayor and served six years as a freeholder, won an open Assembly seat in 1993.
By 2007, the 74-year-old Kavanaugh faced some health issues and was confined to a wheel chair but resisted retiring. Bateman was considering a primary challenge when Kavanaugh announced his retirement.
Bateman won the Senate seat in 2007 with 62%.
The Republican lock on the 16th district was truncated in 2011 legislative redistricting when GOP strongholds like Bridgewater and Bernards were replaced by two Democratic bastions: Princeton and South Brunswick.
Bateman won in 2011 with 55% and in 2013 with 60% but Democrats won an Assembly seat in 2015 – they came close to winning two – and won the second Assembly seat in 2017.
In that election, Bateman won his fourth term in the Senate by just 574 votes, 50.5%, against Democrat Laurie Poppe.