One candidate for the Comeback of the Year Award will be James Biggs, who won 63% of the vote yesterday in a special election for Mayor of Island Heights (pop. 1,877). The 67-year-old Biggs was first elected Mayor in 1974, at age 32, and gave up the job four years later to run for Congress.
In 1978, Democrat William Hughes was a two-term Congressman from a Republican district. A 41-year-old former Assistant Prosecutor from Cape May County, ousted four-term incumbent Charles Sandman, by a 57%-41% margin in the 1974 Watergate landslide – one year after Sandman beat incumbent William Cahill in the Republican gubernatorial primary and then lost the general election by 721,328 votes.
Republicans believed they would win the seat back in 1976 with an exceptionally strong candidate, five-term Assembly Assistant Minority Leader James Hurley (R-Millville). But Hughes proved to be a stronger incumbent than Republicans imagined, and Hurley turned out to be a weak general election candidate. Hughes beat Hurly 68%-32%, running twenty percentage points ahead of the Democratic presidential candidate.
Two years later, with Jimmy Carter struggling in his mid-term election, there was some talk that the GOP would try again to oust Hughes. But Republicans failed to recruit a top-tier challenger, and instead went with Biggs, an Ocean County Republican with few ties to swing voters in Cumberland and Salem counties. Republicans put no money into Biggs’ campaign, and Hughes won 66%-34%.
In the very Republican year of 1980, Hughes was re-elected with 58% against Cape May County Sheriff Beech Fox. He held the seat for twenty years, until his retirement in 1994.
Biggs’ big comeback opportunity came after the death of Mayor David Siddons last year. (Siddons beat Biggs 52%-48% in 2006.) He defeated former Councilwoman Diane Ault Cullen. If he follows his pattern of winning a mayoral race and then running against a Democratic Congressman in a Republican district, the GOP could turn to him as U.S. Rep. John Adler’s challenger next year.