One of the closest statewide primaries in New Jersey history was for United States Senator in 1910, one of the last Senate contests before the 17th amendment, which allowed for the direct election of Senators by the voters.
Three Republicans ran in the primary for the seat of John Kean, who was not seeking re-election to a third term: former Governor Franklin Murphy, who served from 1902 to 1905; Edward Stokes, who served as Governor from 1905 to 1908; and Congressman Charles Fowler, the Chairman of the House Banking and Currency Committee.
Stokes won by 736 votes statewide, a 34.4%-33.8% victory over Fowler. Murphy finished third with 31.8%, just 3,214 votes behind Stokes.
The Democratic nominee was former Plainfield City Councilman James Martine, who had lost races for Mayor of Plainfield, and in 1906, for Congress against Fowler. Martine was the choice of party leaders and won 76% in the Democratic primary over Frank McDermit, a Newark criminal defense attorney.
But the real contest was not in the primary, which had no binding effect on the election. Former U.S. Senator James Smith, the Essex County Democratic Party boss, was seeking a return to the seat he held from 1893 to 1899. Smith had recruited Woodrow Wilson, the President of Princeton University, to run for Governor. Historians say Wilson agreed to run if the nomination was offered without conditions, although Smith believed he would be Wilson’s choice for Senate if the Democrats had the votes in the Legislature.
The mid-term election of Republican President William Howard Taft turned out to be a good year for Democrats. Wilson was elected Governor, and Democrats picked up three State Senate seats and captured control of the Assembly after gaining 23 seats. That gave Democrats a 51-30 majority when a Joint Session of the Legislature would meat in January to elect a Senator.
But Wilson, who enacted a major reform package soon after taking office, decided to back Martine — ending Smith’s comeback bid. Only three Democratic Assemblyman stuck with Smith — the rest following Wilson’s lead.
Two years later, as the Democratic nominee for President, Wilson campaigned for his choice in the Democratic U.S. Senate primary: Passaic County Court Judge Billy Hughes, an Irish-born former silk mill worker from Paterson who had served four non-consecutive terms in Congress. Hughes defeated Smith by a 2-1 margin in the primary.