Smith and Holt, unlikely Conrgessmen, now safe incumbents

Christopher Smith and Rush Holt are safe bets for re-election in 2006, and these two Congressmen — who were initially given little chance to win — overcame tough campaigns to win a second term. Thanks to some hard work and favorable treatment during redistricting, Smith and Holt have become House veterans. It was assumed that Smith was simply a fluke. He was a neophyte who won a seat in Congress at age 27 against an incumbent under indictment. He defeated 13-term incumbent Frank Thompson, Jr., the Chairman of the House Administration Committee, by a 57%-41% margin and with just $79,000. Smith’s opponent was the best Democrats had to offer: Joseph Merlino, a former State Senate President and one of Trenton’s most prolific vote getters. Richard Zimmer, the former Congressman, was the clear favorite to win back his old House seat against Holt, who had ousted Zimmer’s Republican successor in 1998. Both Smith and Holt won upset victories against incumbents weakened by national political scandals. For Smith, it was the Abscam scandal, when Thomspon was videotaped accepting bribes from FBI agents posing as Arab sheiks in a sting operation; for Holt, it was the impeachment of President Bill Clinton and the brief rendition of Twinkle, Twinkle Kenneth Starr sung on the House floor by Michael Pappas that ended the Republican’s political career after just a single term. Smith and Holt were political newcomers who lost congressional races before winning the second time around. Smith worked for a family sporting goods business and won 37% against Thompson in 1978. Holt directed the Plasma Lab at Princeton University and lost the Democratic primary for an open seat in 1996. The districts of both Congressmen favored their opponents. In 1980, Smith was the only Republican to unseat a Democratic incumbent in a congressional district where Jimmy Carter outpolled Ronald Reagan. Two years later, prior to the existence of the bi-partisan Congressional Apportionment Commission, the Democratic legislature approved a redistricting plan that made the district even less favorable to Smith. Merlino was said to have drawn the map himself. The 12th district was heavily Republican, and Zimmer won it with ease three times. Smith and Holt were both targeted for defeat by the party in control of Congress seeking to protect their majority. Both challengers had higher name identification than the incumbents. Merlino had sought the Democratic nomination for Governor in 1981, and Zimmer ran for the U.S. Senate in 1996. Both Smith and Holt had ideologies that were not perfectly in sync with their districts. Smith was a cultural conservative in a liberal district; Holt was a liberal representing an fiscally conservative region of the state that provided pluralities to moderate Republican statewide candidates. From their first day in Congress, Smith and Holt knew they had a tenuous hold on their congressional seats. They both worked hard, seemingly non-stop, in an effort to appeal to their constituents. As congressional candidates, Merlino and Zimmer proved disappointing. Smith portrayed Merlino as an old-time, cigar-smoking political boss, an image that was enhanced when Merlino called Smith “Kid” in the presence of reporters. Holt painted Zimmer as a Newt Gingrich Republican. Smith and Holt exceeded the expectations of the political experts.

Smith and Holt, unlikely Conrgessmen, now safe incumbents