(Published in The Press of Atlantic City on June 4, 2008.)
(Derek Harper reported from Lautenberg HQ in Newark. I reported from Andrews HQ in Cherry Hill.)
Sen. Frank Lautenberg won the U.S. Senate primary Tuesday and will face former Republican U.S. Rep. Dick Zimmer in the fall.
Lautenberg nearly doubled the totals of U.S. Rep. Rob Andrews, who ran a short, intense campaign after not starting his run until early April.
Results put Lautenberg ahead 60.5 percent to 33.6 percent at midnight, with 5,882 of 6,290 districts statewide reporting, according to The Associated Press. Morristown Mayor Donald Cresitello trailed with less than 6 percent of more than 308,000 votes cast.
“Today we took the next step to keeping a Democratic senator in the state of New Jersey,” state Democratic Chairman Joseph Cryan said at Lautenberg’s headquarters. He talked while surrounded by the state’s Democratic congressional delegation — except Andrews.
Cryan predicted Lautenberg would win with 60 percent of the vote in the low-turnout primary.
Andrews conceded shortly after 10 p.m., having spoken to Lautenberg by telephone just a few minutes earlier. He urged New Jersey Democrats to unite behind Lautenberg.
“I’m supporting him, and I urge you to do the same,” Andrews said.
Andrews declined to speculate on his future but made clear it would not include a re-election run for his current Congressional seat. His wife, Camille, won nomination for the seat Tuesday, but may step aside for another Democrat to run in her stead.
However, he did not rule out future political pursuits, saying he wanted to keep his options open.
Andrews lauded the heavy turnout by Democrats in Gloucester and Camden counties, where he said he took about 80 percent of the vote. He said New Jersey’s early presidential primary may deflated voter interest, noting that his campaign team sometimes had to point out to voters that there was a second separate primary this year.
Still, he praised Lautenberg for running a good campaign and remained in good humor throughout his 15-minute concession speech.
“I give the senator credit for talking about his record,” Andrews said.
At the Lautenberg headquarters in the Newark Hilton, they killed the music when Andrews prepared to concede, as supporters pressed up against the blue velvet ropes that kept them away from the projection television
After five minutes of Andrews, organizers queued up Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” as U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, Gov. Jon S. Corzine and Lautenberg, accompanied by his wife, took the stage.
“The voters of New Jersey have spoken clearly and loudly, and they have said the change that people want is from the failed last seven years of Bush policies,” Menendez said, “that change lies in retuning Frank Lautenberg to the United States Senate.”
Corzine stressed unity, saying if they wanted to be successful in November, they should now stand up for the good things Lautenberg did in the Senate.
Afterward, Corzine said Andrews had picked a difficult fight.
“Sen. Lautenberg hasn’t done anything other than be an effective representative,” he said.
Asked if Andrews was now a nonfactor, Corzine said, “No, absolutely not,” and stressed reunifying the party.
Lautenberg took the stage to 30 seconds of applause that morphed in to chants of “Frank … Frank … Frank … Frank!”
He said Andrews called, and thanked him for his gracious concession, saying, “We thank him for that and we wish him well.”
He, too, stressed unity, saying the party needed to come together to keep presumptive Republican nominee John McCain out of the White House.
He also took aim at Zimmer, saying “to the winner of the Republican nomination for Senate, we don’t need a senator voting against progress, against change and against the interests of working families.”
State voters needed someone who represent their interests, Lautenberg said, “Not an apologist for Bush or who made their living working for special interests.”
He called for party members to put him in office so he could work to make health care affordable, expand stem cell research, keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people and fight global warming.
“With your support, we’ll win in November and will continue to stand strong for New Jersey,” Lautenberg said. “But I’m not sure we’ll do a lot better than tonight.”
Afterward, he called Zimmer “a nice fellow” whom he has met in other political events. But he indicated that Zimmer’s past as a corporate lobbyist would be used against him in the fall campaign.
Lautenberg also endorsed presidential candidate Barack Obama, speaking of Hillary Rodham Clinton in the past tense and saying “I’m very excited about his presidency.”
According to early returns elsewhere in Andrews’ southern New Jersey base, he won only narrowly in Atlantic and Cumberland counties.
Lautenberg had secured the support of most of the state’s Democratic establishment. Holding his Senate seat for all but two years since 1982, he also commanded far superior statewide name recognition than Andrews.