Buoyed by voter discontent with the war in Iraq, U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez defeated Republican state Sen. Tom Kean Jr. by an unexpectedly wide margin yesterday to retain his seat, overcoming months of bitter attacks on his character and integrity.
The victory makes Menendez – a Cuban-American appointed in January to fill the Senate seat vacated by Gov. Jon Corzine – the first minority candidate elected to statewide office in New Jersey.
With 97 percent of precincts reporting, unofficial returns showed Menendez with 53 percent of the vote to Kean’s 45 percent. The remainder was split among seven third-party candidates.
Addressing hundreds of cheering supporters at his victory celebration in East Brunswick, Menendez, 52, thanked voters for rejecting “the politics of personal destruction,” a reference to Kean’s liberal use of negative advertising.
“This victory is rooted in the simple idea that faith trumps fear,” Menendez said. “Tonight we have chosen here in New Jersey to set our nation on a new and different course.”
Kean, the heir to a political legacy spanning four generations, had been seen as the Republican Party’s best hope to break the Democrats’ three-decade lock on New Jersey’s Senate seats.
But with Republicans across the country hobbled by an unpopular president and by mounting anger over the war, Kean’s vaunted family name was not enough to carry him to victory.
“I am not going away,” Kean, 38, vowed during his concession speech at the Bridgewater Marriott, where he was joined by his father, former Gov. Tom Kean, and other Republican leaders. “I intend to continue working in the New Jersey Senate to change the way the public’s business is conducted.”
Nationally, Democrats seized control of the House of Representatives for the first time since 1994 and will be in position to participate in the legislative agenda for President Bush’s final two years in office. In addition, Democrats gained at least three seats in the Senate.
In New Jersey, House seats in two closely contested races remained in Republican hands. Rep. Mike Ferguson held off Democratic Assemblywoman Linda Stender to win a fourth term in the 7th Congressional District, and Rep. Scott Garrett, a two-term Republican, defeated Democrat Paul Aronsohn in the 5th Congressional District.
Based on last night’s unofficial count, it appeared turnout was close to the 46 percent of registered voters who went to the polls in 2002, the last time a U.S. Senate race topped the ballot. Last year’s race for governor saw 49 percent turnout, while the 2004 presidential race drew 73 percent.
Menendez, who as a member of the House voted against a resolution to authorize the war, made Iraq his signature issue and worked to portray Kean as a puppet of the Bush administration.
An exit poll conducted by two national research firms on behalf of the media found Menendez tapped a rich vein. Six in 10 voters said they disapproved of the war, the exit poll showed. About the same number said they were dissatisfied with the president and were likely to vote Democratic.
“There is a reservoir of rage across the country,” said U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), who was on hand last night to support his Senate colleague.
State Republican Party chairman Tom Wilson said the anti-GOP sentiment was too much to overcome.
“It comes down to this serious head wind this campaign was facing: anti-Bush, anti-war, anti-Iraq,” Wilson said. “The Democrats nationalized their message. We practiced the idiom that all politics is local. We made it Tom Kean versus Bob Menendez.”
That strategy is sure to be dissected in the months ahead.
With an almost singular focus, Kean branded Menendez a political boss and an ethically challenged pocket-liner from the state’s cradle of corruption, Hudson County. At every opportunity, the Westfield resident pointed out that federal investigators subpoenaed information about one of Menendez’s business arrangements.
In the end, Kean’s intense focus on negative campaigning may have hurt him more than Menendez. Neck and neck with the incumbent in public opinion polls since March, Kean saw his numbers slip over the past several weeks. At the same time, the polls reflected an increase in negative views about him.
“I think the people of this state expected a different and better campaign from him,” Assembly Speaker Joseph Roberts (D-Camden) said last night. “It was consistently negative. It was shrill, and it began to backfire on him.”
Lautenberg termed Kean’s campaign one of “character assassination” instead of issues.
“It leaves a bad taste in the mouth,” he said.
SIX MORE YEARS
For Menendez, the victory gives him six more years in what he has called his dream job.
The son of Cuban immigrants, Menendez grew up in Union City, where he got his first taste of politics on the board of education. Elected mayor of the Hudson County community in 1986, he steadily climbed the political ladder, winning election to the state Assembly in 1987, the state Senate in 1991 and Congress in 1993. As deputy minority whip, he became the highest-ranking Hispanic in the House.
Yesterday’s victory offered the Latino community a new source of pride.
“It’s a celebration for all New Jersey, but especially for Latinos,” said Martin Perez, president of the Latino Leadership Alliance, an umbrella group of Hispanic organizations based in New Brunswick. “What makes us proud is that the best person who can represent New Jersey at this moment is a Latino.”
Inside the Brunswick Hilton, Hispanic kitchen workers offered up their own silent tribute, holding a sign that read “Felicidades Menendez,” an expression of good tidings.
While yesterday’s loss was a deep disappointment to Republicans, Wilson, the GOP chairman, said it hasn’t dimmed the future prospects for Kean, whose profile has risen dramatically since he was appointed to a vacant seat in the Assembly five years ago.
“This puts him at the head of the class for any election in the future,” Wilson said, likening the defeat to Christie Whitman’s 1990 loss to Sen. Bill Bradley. Three years later, Whitman was elected governor.
“He (Kean) walks out of this race where Whitman was in 1990,” Wilson said. “It puts him in the driver’s seat.”
Star-Ledger staff writers Deborah Howlett, Joe Donohue, Jeff Whelan, Josh Margolin, Russell Ben-Ali, Dunstan McNichol, Ron Marsico and J. Scott Orr contributed to this report.