Menendez handily defeats Kean

Menendez handily defeats Kean

November 7, 2006 Star Ledger

Sen. Robert Menendez, a Union City native who rose to national prominence in the Democratic Party, today beat back an unexpectedly fierce challenge to retain his Senate seat and become the first Hispanic elected to statewide office.

Menendez, appointed to the office last year, led his Republican rival, state Sen. Tom Kean Jr., by 10 points, 54 percent to 44 percent, with nearly three-quarters of precincts reporting.

"Tonight, the people of New Jersey embraced a new direction for our nation and rejected the politics of personal destruction," Menendez, flanked by his son and daughter, told a cheering crowd at the East Brunswick Hilton. "Thank you, New Jersey."

The victory, in one of the few vulnerable districts for Democrats nationwide, helped the party inch closer to recapturing control of the Senate for the first time in four years. By 10:30 p.m., Democrats had toppled Senate GOP incumbents in Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Ohio and at least two other Republican seats were in jeopardy.

The margin of victory belied the competitiveness of the campaign, one of a handful of spotlight races as Democrats sought to wrest control of Congress. Even in the waning days, opinion polls suggested the New Jersey race would be close, with at least one calling it a statistical dead heat.

It also became one of the most bitter and expensive contests in state history, with the race drawing millions of dollars in spending by the national parties and prompting an onslaught of dirty politics and negative ads.

Menendez, 52, had spent two decades climbing the political ladder, rising from Union City to the Congress and ultimately, the House Democratic leadership. Gov. Jon Corzine appointed him to the Senate seat that Corzine vacated last year. But what was initially expected to be safe Senate seat in a Democratic state instead became a dogfight.

Kean, 38, the son and namesake of a former popular governor, sought to tie Menendez, the premier power broker of Hudson County, to the county and state’s storied history of political corruption. He gained ammunition when federal investigators subpoenaed records relating to rental income Menendez collected from a nonprofit in Hudson County.

Menendez denied the allegations of corruption. He said Kean lacked the ideas or experience and represented the failed policies of the GOP administration.

President Bush never took an active role in the race but remained a polarizing figure who might have affected the outcome. Exit polls showed 86 percent of Menendez voters disapproved of the president’s performance; 76 percent of Kean voters said they strongly approved the way the president handled his job.

The results were similar on the issue of Iraq: 81 percent of Kean voters strongly approved of the war in Iraq, 75 percent of Menendez voters disagreed.

Kean had tried to distance himself from the administration, calling for the outset of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and arguing that White House had made mistakes. He even avoided describing himself as a Republican, but the link was tough to overcome.

"It comes down to this serious headwind this campaign was facing: anti-Bush; anti-war; anti-Iraq," said Tom Wilson, chairman of the state GOP. "The Democrats nationalized their message. We practiced the idiom that all politics is local. We made it Tom Kean versus Bob Menendez."

Some voters just wanted a change, according to the exit poll data. It showed that 33 percent wanted Republicans to retain the Senate; 53 percent wanted to see Democrats in charge.

At Kean headquarters, some Republicans said Kean should be proud of his campaign and predicted a bright future for the state senator. "He’s done well considering the national environment," said one GOP legislative staff member, who asked to remain anonymous because Kean had not yet conceded. "He’s the kind of candidate we have to have in New Jersey."

In a concession speech, Kean called the campaign "an incredible experience" and said, "I am not going away. I intend to continue working in the New Jersey senate to change the way the public's business is conducted."

The vitriol that marked the campaign didn’t end when the polls closed. Menendez campaign staffers said Kean ignored their calls tonight to find out when he would deliver a concession speech. The GOP challenger eventually called to concede just two minutes before Menendez took the stage in East Brunswick.

When Menendez mentioned his opponent’s name, the crowd booed loudly. He told them to stop.

"We don’t have to act like others," he said. "Seriously, we don’t have to act like others."

Still, Democrats weren’t shy about attacking the loser, whom they accused of dragging the campaign into the mud.

"Ten years from now young Tom Kean will look back at this campaign and be dramatically embarrassed by the way it was conducted," said former Gov. James Florio. "Both of these people, they’re honest people, they’re sincere people and there was an effort to demonize someone and it was just too much. And the people of the state saw it."

Said Sen. Frank Lautenberg, "His name was the only thing that kept it a close race at all...but young Tom Kean wasn’t prepared."

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