Republicans thought they could beat freshman U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg in 1988. 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, Kean’s 39-year-old Commissioner of Community Affairs and the first Black to score a touchdown as a member of the Princeton University football team.
Coleman, who served as Commissioner of Energy in Kean’s first cabinet, 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.
This story was first published on January 18, 2021.