CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE — Democrat Jeff Van Drew won re-election Tuesday in a state Senate race so close he stayed away from his own celebration party in Rio Grande.
Republican David DeWeese, of Wildwood, had hoped to ride a wave of voter discontent in Democrats stirred up by Gov. Chris Christie.
“I won all three counties,” Van Drew said at 10:53 p.m. as he waited for several precincts to report in Cumberland County.
In a speech in which he did not concede defeat, DeWeese vowed a rematch with Van Drew in 2013.
DeWeese, who was making his first bid for state office, came just 18 votes shy of beating Van Drew in Cape May County, a feat DeWeese said showed that Republicans were making inroads in the 1st Legislative District.
With 100 percent of the vote tallied in Cape May, Cumberland and Atlantic counties, Van Drew garnered 24,298 votes, compared with DeWeese’s 20,726
“We did it. No matter what the outcome – we did it,” DeWeese said. “Nobody thought I’d be up here at 10:20 p.m. and not have an outcome in this race.”
The Senate race certainly was closer than many Democrats would have liked. Democrats outspent Republicans 5 to 1 in the race, or more than $660,000 with a week left in the campaign, according to state filings.
But the 2nd District race in Atlantic County largely overshadowed this race and likely drew campaign cash away from Van Drew, whose campaign led the state in spending in 2007 at $3.5 million.
“I was pretty heavily targeted in a negative campaign,” Van Drew said. “That will take a toll on you.”
DeWeese, a longtime municipal court judge, fared well in a public debate in Cape May County where some people said he got the better of the senator in several exchanges.
For Van Drew, a dentist from Dennis Township, a win gives him a second term in the state Senate after serving three terms in the Assembly. In 1994, Van Drew was the first Democrat elected to the Cape May County Board of Freeholders in nearly 20 years. He also served as mayor of Dennis Township.
By 10:30 p.m., DeWeese had not conceded the race. But in his speech to supporters, he vowed a rematch in 2013.
“In 2013, I’ll be there,” he said. “We have two years to prepare.”
In the candidates’ home county, the day started in a dead heat for mail-in ballots with both getting about 1,900.
DeWeese gave credit to Cape May County Republican Chairman Michael Donohue, who took over leadership of the organization from longtime chairman David Von Savage this year.
Donohue said he was not feeling any undue pressure to win in his first election.
“The bar was set a little low since we lost all these seats,” he said.
Republicans gradually lost their longtime control of the 1st Legislative District starting in 2001 when Van Drew was elected to the state Assembly.
“I think anyone can safely say this is going to be very close. Very close is not where our opponents expected to be this Election Night,” Donohue said as returns rolled in.
Republicans were counting on a higher turnout than Democrats in an election year that was expected to see low voter interest. They hoped to use Christie’s influence to motivate voters. Christie campaigned for DeWeese and his running mates in Cape May County.
“Win or lose, our numbers are better because of the help of the governor,” Donohue said.
Meanwhile, Democratic Party Chairman Jim Pickering consoled Democrats who lost seats in local elections in Middle and Dennis townships, and did not field any candidates for county office.
“Unfortunately, so many people seemed to have stayed home tonight and not participated in their fundamental right to vote,” Pickering said. “That means next year we’re going to have to come back harder.”
Pickering said the county’s Democrats would launch a major push to get President Obama re-elected.
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