One of the best legislative contests of the 20th century came in 1955, when two future billionaires faced off to represent Somerset County in the New Jersey State Senate. The Republican incumbent, magazine publisher Malcom S. Forbes, defeated industrialist Charles W. Englehard, Jr. by just 370 votes, 19,981 to 19,611.
Forbes launched his political career four years earlier, at age 31, when he mounted a massive door-to-door campaign to defeat the incumbent, Freas L. Hess, in the Republican primary. Hess, 55, who had the backing of the Somerset GOP organization, had won a Senate seat in 1947 after nine years in the Assembly that included terms as Speaker and Majority Leader.
Forbes spent his first year in the Senate organizing a drive to draft General Dwight Eisenhower to sek the 1952 Republican presidential nomination — over 30,000 New Jerseyans signed petitions in support of Eisenhower — and almost immediately began his campaign to run for Governor in 1953.
The race to succeed two-term GOP Governor Alfred Driscoll attracted ten other candidates: Senate President Samuel Bodine of Hunterdon County, former Congressman Clifford Case, State Senator Alfred Clapp of Essex County, state Conservation and Economic Development Commissioner Charles Erdman, State Senator Kenneth Hand of Union County, State Treasurer Walter Margetts, former New Brunswick Mayor Frederick Richardson, Assemblyman Fred Shepard of Union County (a conservative who headed Ohio Senator Robert Taft's campaign in New Jersey), Republican State Committee Finance Chairman Webster Todd (the father of future Governor Christine Todd Whitman), and New Jersey Turnpike Authority Chairman Paul Troast. Alvin Van Schoick, a 74-year-old caddy from Long Branch, and Charles Klein, a guard at Rahway State Prison, were also in the race.
After months of behind the scenes maneuvering, the field narrowed to seven candidates, although it was really contest between Troast and Forbes, who had positioned himself as the decidedly anti-Driscoll candidates. In the April primary, Troast, who had the backing of eighteen Republican County Chairmen, defeated Forbes by about 47,000 votes, with Shepard, Hand, Richardson, Van Schoick and Klein trailing.
Troast lost the General Election to Democrat Robert Meyner, a former Senate Minority Leader from Warren County.
Almost immediately that election was over, Forbes began preparing to run against Meyner in 1957. Meyner helped recruit the 38-year-old Englehard, the heir to a precious metals empire and World War II bomber pilot who was a childhood friend of Forbes. Englehard, who had increased the size of his family fortune twenty-fold before his death in 1971, was viewed as the model fo Ian Fleming's Goldfinger spy novel. He owned diamond mines in South Africa, and his race horses once had a string of fourteen stakes winners over a ten-year period. He owned a fleet of jets, and traveled with an entourage of valets, chefs, butlers and secretaries. His company, the New Jersey-based Englehard Corporation, had 6,500 employees and annual sales of $4.17 billion before its sale to BASF earlier this year.
Englehard sought to make his race with Forbes a referendum on a controversial local issue: Forbes' support of a $100 million bond issue to finance the development of water reservoirs across the state. Many Somerset voters opposed the Chimney Rock reservoir plan. Meyner campaigned heavily for Englehard, and some Republican leaders, still smarting over the '51 primary, publicly urged Forbes' defeat. But Forbes held on, albeit narrowly — a win of 50.4% to 49.6% in one of the state's most heavily Republican counties. (Statewide, a public question approving the water resources bond, won just 38% of the vote.)
Over the next two years, Forbes went from being a renegade reformer to the preferred candidate of a majority of Republican county organizations. After Bernard Shanley, the White House Apppointments Counsel, dropped out of the race, Forbes secured most of the organization lines. He defeated State Senator Wayne Dumont of Warren County by 84,601 votes, a 63%-37% margin. Forbes was less successful in the general election: Meyner beat him decisively, by 203,809 votes — a 55%-43% margin.
After a run of just seven years, Forbes' career in politics came to an end in September 1958 when he resigned from the Senate to devote more time to his publishing empire. His resignation helped boost the carrers of two more future gubernatorial candidate: Assemblyman William Ozzard, who was among the candidates for the 1969 nomination, won a special election to fill Forbes' Senate seat, and Raymond Bateman, the young Executive Director of the New Jersey Republican State Committee who would become the 1977 Republican candidate for Governor, won Ozzard's seat in the State Assembly.