These days, Congressman Christopher Smith seems eerily similar to the men he beat in 1980 and 1982. The point was driven home yesterday by the Merlinoesque comments of Smith’s longtime Chief of Staff, Mary McDermott Noonan. Asked about Smith’s possible ’08 opponent, a 33-year-old college professor and author with some political credentials and early fundraising success, Noonan said: “We’ve heard this song before. No matter what the political climate, Chris Smith gets 65% or more,” said Noonan. “He is ballot tested and extremely popular because of the work he’s done for his district.”
For a guy who basically lives in Virginia, represents a district where Democrats have made considerable gains at the local level, and has an anemic $204,000 in his campaign warchest, Smith seems a little overconfident. That’s ironic, considering that Smith has built a 27-year career in Congress by taking advantage of opponents who didn’t take him seriously.
Smith was 25-years-old when he made his first bid for public office, losing to twelve-term Democratic Congressman Frank Thompson, the Chairman of the powerful House Administration Committee, by a 2-1 margin. Two years later, in 1980, Thompson was indicted in the Abscam scandal and Smith won easily in a Democratic district. Pundits considered him a one-termer.
In 1982, Joseph Merlino, the former Senate President who had sought the Democratic nomination for Governor a year earlier, ran against Smith. Merlino had drawn the new fourth district for himself – a Democratic area that connected Trenton and Pennsauken in Camden County. But the hardworking Smith secured a unexpectedly long career in Congress by outworking the overconfident veteran who never thought he would lose.
After a debate a few weeks before the election, Merlino was spinning reporter when Smith tried to make a point. ”Quiet, kid,” Mr. Merlino said, ”I’m talking to the press. When I get to Washington, look me up. I may give you a job as a page.”
Now the 54-year-old Smith rarely returns to New Jersey – as a senior member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Smith travels a lot on official business – and isn’t as aggressive as he used to be. Republicans complain that he isn’t around to campaign for him; indeed, Smith has made no campaign appearances for Republican legislative candidates in key State Senate races in districts 11, 12 and 14, all of which include parts of his congressional district. And in Monmouth County, where the GOP is defending their majority on the Board of Freeholders, Republican leaders complain that they never see him.
Isn’t complacency and overconfidence a common reason for veteran Congressmen to lose their seats? That, and a national political environment that favors the other party.