Menendez Holds On to U.S. Senate Seat in New Jersey

War-weary voters in New Jersey returned Robert Menendez to the U.S. Senate on Tuesday, opting for the Democrat despite months of corruption allegations made by his GOP opponent, the son of a popular former governor.

The attack-filled campaign pitted Menendez, one of only three Hispanics in the Senate, against Republican state Sen. Tom Kean Jr.

With 85 percent of precincts reporting, Menendez had 53 percent of the vote compared with Kean's 45 percent.

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With control of Congress in the balance, the national parties pumped millions of dollars into the Garden State to help their candidates air ads pounding their messages home: Kean claimed Menendez is corrupt; Menendez harnessed voter discontent over the war, alleging Kean would be a mouthpiece for President Bush.

Menendez rode that centerpiece of his campaign to forge a traditional Democratic coalition of women and labor, according to an Associated Press exit poll. Meanwhile, all of the state's incumbent House members won re-election.

During his victory speech, Menendez said the win will help in "changing the direction in America."

"Everyone should know this about me: Every single hour of every single day for the next six years I will dedicate myself to earning your trust and making you proud," Menendez said.

He touched on Kean's tactic of portraying him as corrupt, thanking voters for "rejecting the politics of personal destruction."

Ethics, the issue that dominated Kean's campaign, found a sympathetic ear for many voters, including those who elected his opponent, but proved insufficient to overcome a Democrat's advantage in a state that has not elected a Republican to the Senate in 34 years.

During a brief concession speech, Kean told his supporters that he would "continue working in the New Jersey Senate to change the way in which the public's business is being conducted."

Former Gov. Tom Kean Sr., the father of the losing candidate, said his son faced "a terrible headwind" of anti-Bush sentiment.

"My feeling is, any other year he would have won," the elder Kean said.

But Seton Hall University political scientist Joseph Marbach said Kean Jr. may have gone too negative for voters.

"He walked a fine line and as some point, started to turn voters off," Marbach said. "You get portrayed as the one who's the mudslinger and voters start to tune it out."

The campaign's themes were both simple and cutting.

Kean unceasingly criticized Menendez's ethics, pinning many of his attacks on the senator's rental of a home he owned to a nonprofit organization for which he then helped obtain federal funds. The organization's records reportedly were subpoenaed by the U.S. attorney, leading Kean to label Menendez as "under federal criminal investigation," something the incumbent vehemently denied.

The claims did appear to get some traction, however. Although one recent poll showed Menendez with a 10 percentage-point lead, most gave the incumbent only single-digit leads in a Democrat-leaning state that last sent a Republican to the Senate in 1972.

The national Republican Party took notice, airing $4 million in ads against Menendez and sending Arizona Sen. John McCain, former President George H.W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney to help.

Menendez, who voted in 2002 against sending troops to Iraq, painted Kean as a future mouthpiece for the Bush administration. While the challenger echoed Menendez's call for the resignation of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Kean did say he would have voted to send troops overseas.

The point was significant in New Jersey, where polls have shown President Bush's approval sinking and increasing discontent over the war. The state has more unaffiliated voters than registered Democrats and Republicans combined.

National Democrats spent $4 million on Menendez's behalf, adding to the money advantage he held throughout the race. As of mid-October, Menendez had $3.15 million to spend, compared to Kean's $1.67 million. Among the notables who campaigned for Menendez were former President Bill Clinton and Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

Lineage also played a part.

The 38-year-old Kean appeared numerous times on the campaign trial with his father, the former governor and 9-11 Commission chief. Their family boasts five colonial governors, two U.S. senators and a congressman. The elder Kean served two terms as governor and is still revered for his bipartisan style of governing.

Menendez, the 52-year-old son of immigrants who left Cuban before he was born, is only the sixth Hispanic to ever serve in the Senate.

Gov. Jon S. Corzine last year tapped Menendez to fill the final year of his own Senate term, making Menendez the first minority lawmaker to represent New Jersey in the Senate.

Trained as lawyer, Menendez grew up in a Union City and was the first in his family to go to college. His political career started at 19 when he was elected to the school board; he first was elected to Congress in 1992.

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