``Even when people are unhappy with Washington and Congress, they're generally happy with their own congressman,'' said David Luthman, the Democratic Party chairman in Camden County.
Contentment aside, the remarkably high return rate is more accurately attributed to incumbents' ability to raise large amounts of campaign money, which drives away competition before the campaign even starts, and their power to use their offices to attract publicity.
Said Al Santoro, Democratic chairman in Ocean County, ``The only time you see a change in Congress is if a candidate can somehow catch fire or a big national issue or trend comes up,'' such as Watergate in 1974 or the Republican revolution of 1994.
Congressional seats are even safer in South Jersey. There it has taken the truly extraordinary - such as scandal or death - or retirement to produce any turnover in Congress.
Smith has been reelected eight times in the Fourth District. In District 1, the Democratic incumbent, first James J. Florio and then Robert E. Andrews, has won every election since 1974. That year, defined by the historic post-Watergate elections, also was the last time voters in District 2 elected a challenger, Democrat William J. Hughes. Since Hughes decided to retire, Republican Frank A. LoBiondo has won twice. The Third District has reelected the incumbent in every contest since 1965, with Republican H. James Saxton working on his seventh term.
Barring the unforeseen, 1998 will produce more of the same.
Andrews, LoBiondo, Saxton and Smith are heavy favorites for reelection to new two-year terms. All are cruising toward Election Day with minimal opposition, much like most of their colleagues in New Jersey's 13-member congressional delegation.
All four incumbents generally have staked out moderate positions, though Smith is outspoken on abortion. On specific issues, Andrews has pushed legislation to expand student loans; LoBiondo has paid close attention to matters affecting the New Jersey coastline and business; Saxton has focused on international trade and advocated protecting jobs at McGuire Air Force Base; Smith is a recognized leader in the national antiabortion movement.
Why are incumbents so secure?
The deck is stacked heavily in their favor. Members of Congress are in a position to raise big money for campaigns, and they quickly become adept at using their offices to promote themselves.
Facing those obstacles, few elected officials or others with higher political ambitions want any part of taking on a congressional incumbent. The candidate pool is small, with the out-party often forced to settle on someone who is not well-known and who can raise little money.
``The money scares a lot of people off,'' said Santoro, the Democratic chairman in Ocean County, parts of which, along with portions of Burlington and Camden Counties, are in District 3.
The Democratic candidate, Steven Polansky, a Cherry Hill lawyer, is not widely known. His ability to get his name and message out is handcuffed by the fact that he has raised less than $100,000, while Saxton has roughly $1 million in the bank.
Money is only part of the story.
Once in office, members of Congress have an inordinate number of advantages at their disposal. Those include the capacity to do favors for constituents and secure federal grant money for coveted projects back home. With the franking privilege, which allows lawmakers to reach their constituents free through the mail, and the ability to issue press releases and stage events, members of Congress essentially can campaign for reelection from the day they're in office.
``When a congressman calls a federal agency for a constituent, they usually get action,'' said Luthman, citing one of the many services that members of Congress can perform for the people in their districts. ``If you're there for a few years that stuff begins to build.''
Democrat Louis Magazzu, a freeholder in Cumberland County, lost to LoBiondo in 1994 and now marvels at the political juggernaut the incumbent has become in the Second District, which includes Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland and Salem Counties, as well as part of Gloucester County.
It's a difficult district for Democrats under any circumstances, and LoBiondo is considered virtually unbeatable, in large part because of his popularity, fund-raising ability and more moderate political image than the staunchly conservative one that helped get him through an uphill GOP primary in 1994.
But, as Magazzu noted, LoBiondo also campaigns as though he's running behind, showing up at the most obscure events in the district to keep in touch with voters.
``Frank LoBiondo has really worked at it,'' agreed John Rauh, the Democratic chairman in Cape May County. ``He does the things you need to do to endear yourself to people. He gets out and meets people, and he has kept peace in his own party.''
Challengers throughout South Jersey also are hurt by the partisan makeup of the various districts, as well as by anemic opposition parties.
The First District is predominantly Democratic, with a powerful Democratic machine in Camden County making the advantage even greater. The Second, Third and Fourth Districts are heavily tilted in favor of Republicans.
In the Second District, Democrats were so intimidated by LoBiondo this year that party officials didn't even come up with a candidate to oppose him. Derek Hunsberger, the 27-year-old Rowan University security officer who became the Democratic candidate by default, refuses to accept any money or help from the party.
Conceded Rauh, ``We have to get our own act together. It doesn't reflect well on us as a party that we didn't get someone out there that we could sanction.''
There is also political disarray in the First District, which includes parts of Camden and Gloucester Counties, but there Republicans are the ones having trouble. The GOP came up with a candidate, Ron Richards, a township committeeman in Voorhees, but he is running against a popular candidate in Robert Andrews in a district where the Democrats have built a formidable power base.
Because he faces such an uphill climb, Richards can count on limited resources from local Republicans or the state or national GOP organizations. As of last week, Andrews had reported $350,000 in campaign contributions, and Richards less than $5,000.
``The natural demographics of Camden County and the machine party that Rob Andrews represents has got a stranglehold on the electorate,'' said John Hanson, the Republican chairman in Camden County.
Although he stopped short of characterizing the race as hopeless, Hanson said, ``That's not to say we're giving up. Ron's working very hard, but the odds are clearly stacked against him.''