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Rik Mehta, US Senate candidate.
Republican U.S. Senate candidate Rik Mehta

New Jersey could have its first non-white statewide race

Union County vote puts Mehta, Singh at head of back for Senate race against Booker

By David Wildstein, January 31 2020 11:19 am

If this week’s Union County Republican convention was an accurate indicator of the rest of the state, New Jersey could be headed to a historical first: a statewide election where none of the major party candidates are white.

The Union County GOP combined to cast 92% of its votes in the race for U.S. Senate for either Rik Mehta or Hirsh Singh.

The remaining 8% was split between former prosecutor Stuart Meissner and Gary Rich, a former Monmouth County freeholder.  Tricia Flanagan and Natalie Rivera received no votes.

Mehta or Singh would be New Jersey’s first South Asian candidates.  If either of them wins the primary, they would be likely to face incumbent Cory Booker.

Booker became the first African American to win a major party nomination for statewide office in New Jersey when he was elected to the Senate in a 2013 special election.

Against U.S. Senator Bob Menendez, New Jersey’s first Latino statewide winner, Republicans have nominated white men three times.

The 1988 U.S. Senate race in New Jersey

Leonard Coleman is sworn in as New Jersey Commissioner of Energy in January 1982 by Chief Justice Robert Wilentz, right, as Gov. Tom Kean, left, looks on

Republicans have never nominated a non-white statewide candidate before, but they almost did three decades ago.

The GOP thought they could beat freshman U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg in 1977.  New Jersey had gone Republican in five consecutive presidential elections and Tom Kean was re-elected governor in 1985 with 70% of the vote.

The early favorite to run against Lautenberg was Leonard Coleman, 39, Kean’s Commissioner of Community Affairs and the first African American to score a touchdown as a member of the Princeton University football team.

Coleman had spent a couple of years preparing for a Senate campaign against his fellow Montclair resident.

Instead, Republicans cleared the field for perhaps the whitest guy they could find:  Michigan-born Pete Dawkins, a retired Army general and Rhodes Scholar who won the 1958 Heisman Trophy while playing football at West Point.

Dawkins had a great story: he eschewed an NFL career to go to Oxford, and then received two Bronze Stars for his service commanding infantry divisions in Vietnam.  He appeared on the cover of Life Magazine in uniform and served as a White House fellow.  Dawkins spent 24 years in the army, serving at the Pentagon and retiring as a brigadier general.

“Pete Dawkins is the biggest thing to hit New Jersey since Bill Bradley,” Roger Stone, one of his political consultants, told political columnist Tom Hester.

The race pitted Stone against Lautenberg’s consultants, James Carville and Paul Begala.

As a first-time candidate, Dawkins had a series of missteps.

When he said, “I’d blow my brains out if I had to live in a small town,” Lautenberg pounced.

Lautenberg slammed Dawkins for being a carpetbagger, linked Dawkins to pollution at a California army base, and called him a phony.  A magazine story titled, “Pete Dawkins and The Art of Failing Upward” didn’t help.

“Come on Pete, be real,” became a tagline of Lautenberg’s TV ads.

Dawkins called Lautenberg a “swamp dog.”

New Jersey voters split their ticket in 1988.

Bush carried New Jersey by 422,839 votes, a 56%-42% win against Michael Dukakis, Lautenberg beat Dawkins by 249,968 votes, 54%-45%.

Coleman wound up the big winner.  Six years later, he was named president of Major League Baseball’s National League.

Some states have already had statewide races where neither of the top candidates where white.

The first, at least after Reconstruction, was in 1990 when two Asian American candidates, Daniel Akaka and Pat Saiki, faced off for a U.S. Senate seat in Hawaii.  In  2004, when Barack Obama and Alan Keyes competed for Illinois’ U.S. Senate seat.  Democrats have twice nominated an African American candidate to run against Republican U.S. Senator Tim Scott in South Carolina.

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