Now completing his 29th year as a congressman, Christopher Smith started out in politics as a Democratic operative, a 23-year-old Trenton State graduate working for his family sporting goods business and working campaigns part-time. In 1976, Smith was the campaign manager for Stephen Foley, a lawyer and pro-life activist who was challenging incumbent U.S. Senator Harrison Williams in the Democratic primary. Foley won just 15% of the vote against Williams, who went on to win a fourth term with 61% in the general election. Foley received 66,178 votes – about three times the number of votes cast in the New Jersey primary for Ellen McCormack, a Long Island housewife who sought the Democratic presidential nomination that year.
By 1978, Smith had become a Republican and was working part-time as the Executive Director of New Jersey Right to Life. Living in Old Bridge, he decided to run for Congress against Frank Thompson (D-Trenton), the Chairman of the House Administration Committee and a congressman for 24 years. Thompson beat Smith easily, 61%-37%; he outspent Smith $67k to $16k. At this point, few political observers viewed Smith as a rising star in New Jersey politics.
On February 4, 1980, after Smith had already decided to run again, media reports implicated Thompson in the Abscam scandal. (Abscam also took down Williams). There were allegations that Thompson had taken a $50,000 bribe from an undercover FBI agent posing as an Arab sheik. Republicans briefly considered replacing Smith on the ticket, but Hamilton Mayor Jack Rafferty and former U.S. Senate candidate Jeffrey Bell said no. Thompson was indicted weeks after the primary, and the 27-year-old Smith won a decisive 47%-41% victory. (He was again outspent, $169k to $79k). Ronald Reagan also won the fourth district, beating Jimmy Carter 47%-44 %.)
Smith was supposed to be a one-term Congressman; the Almanac of American Politics said that there was a "general assumption in New Jersey that Smith has few political assets outside Thompson's Abscam problems and will turn out to be a one-term congressman."
The Democratic-controlled Legislature, which controlled congressional redistricting in 1982, made Smith's district even more Democratic – it went from Trenton to Pennsauken. The Democratic candidate was Joseph Merlino, a former Senate President who had run for governor one year earlier. Smith, already building a reputation as a hard worker with strong constituent service, beat Merlino 53%-47% in a Democratic district in a Democratic year.
After the federal court overturned the congressional map, a new district was drawn for 1984 that was more similar to the one Smith won in 1980, although it gave him parts of Monmouth and Ocean counties. Smith won a third term by a 61%-39% margin over James Hedden, who ran New Jersey's AFSCME union. He ran two points ahead of Reagan.
In 1986, a more Democratic year nationally, Smith faced Jeffrey Laurenti, the politically astute Executive Director of the State Senate Democratic office, and won 61%-38%. He beat Betty Holland, the wife of longtime Trenton Mayor Arthur Holland, by a 66%-33% margin in 1988, and Trenton lawyer/Democratic operative Mark Setaro 63%-34% in 1990.
After the 1990 census, Smith picked up more of Monmouth and Ocean counties and his district became much more Republican. He beat: Brian Hughes, a son of former Gov. Richard Hughes (and now the Mercer County Executive) by a 62%-35% margin in 1992; Ralph Walsh, 68%-31% in 1994; Kevin Meara (now a Republican Councilman in Hamilton Township), 64%-34% in 1996; Larry Schneider 62%-35% in 1998; Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D-Princeton), 62%-35% in 2000; Mary Brennan (now a Superior Court Judge), 66%-32% in 2002; attorney Amy Vasquez, 67%-32% in 2004; Carol Gay, 66%-33% in 2006, and college history professor Joshua Zeitz, 66%-32% in 2008.