Democratic state Sen. Jim Whelan has retooled his fuel-tax initiative.

Edward Lea

After a bruising campaign, voters returned Jim Whelan to the state Senate in the 2nd Legislative District.

With all 128 precincts reporting, Whelan, a Democrat, had 22,403 votes to Republican Assemblyman Vince Polistina's 19,254.

The Atlantic County Clerk's Office issued 5,251 absentee ballots, said John Piatt, an employee in the Clerk's Office. But with many of the ballots traditionally employed by Democrats, that total does not appear enough to overcome Whelan's lead.

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After the polls closed at 8 p.m., Democrats nervously checked iPads and smart phones for election updates from the Atlantic County Clerk's Office. The mood noticeably picked up after Democrats realized Whelan still held the lead even following returns from Polistina's hometown, the Republican stronghold of Egg Harbor Township.

Whelan arrived at his election headquarters in Atlantic City 's Tun Tavern to cheers at 10:05 p.m., making his way to the temporary podium set up in front of an oil painting of a tavern.

There, Atlantic County Democratic Party Chairman Pat D'Arcy introduced "the ongoing and still Senator Jim Whelan," and a noticeably hoarse Whelan thanked volunteers and fellow candidates.

In a downbeat speech, Whelan said the night was "bittersweet" because of the other Democratic losses around the county. Both of his Assembly running mates, Alisa Cooper and Damon Tyner, were beaten by Republicans John Amodeo and Chris Brown.

As he thanked supporters for their help, Whelan prepared them for more work.

"We have a challenge ahead of us in the next several years," Whelan said. "We know that our area, we know that the national economy is bad, we know that New Jersey is worse and that our area is particularly hit hard," Whelan said.

He said that everyone, from the chairman on down, would now have to work together in the coming years for solutions.

Whelan spoke at about 10:15 p.m., as Polistina and his wife, Carolyn, appeared on a nearby television tuned to NJTV, showing his concession speech. Polistina conceded prior to talking to Whelan directly.

Polistina called the race a "great experience."

"I really want to thank everybody who worked so hard on this campaign. Unfortunately, we came up a little short," he said to hundreds of supporters at the Linwood Country Club. "It was a great run, a great campaign. ... I enjoyed the fact that I did it, and I wouldn't take anything back."

Polistina thanked his wife for her support during the election, specifically her role in a campaign commercial that defended her husband's stance on health care benefits for women.

"She had dignity and grace, even as the attacks were coming," he said. "She is a great wife and a tremendous mother."

Their race for the state Senate was viewed as one of the two closest in the state. As in the 38th Legislative District in Bergen County, Republicans had hoped to pick up a seat held by an incumbent Democrat.

Whelan and Polistina had ideological differences that they expressed in debates and forums. Polistina, the owner of a small engineering firm, argued for lower taxes, regulations and spending, while Whelan, an Atlantic City school teacher, highlighted his legislation and argued the government could play a role in job creation.

But they had similar records on most of the major state and local issues, both voting for pension and benefit reform as well as the wealth of Atlantic City legislation approved over the past year.

With broadly similar voting records, the 2nd District became ground zero for a punishing campaign that pushed emotional buttons, but said little to residents in a region where the dominant casino industry has been in a protracted slump and the unemployment rate has been more than 10 percent since January 2009.

As a result, Whelan and Polistina's separate campaigns revolved around relatively inconsequential matters including their separate public employments, pensions and party-line budget votes.

Both Democrats and Republicans saw a late influx of cash, pushing the total raised by all groups beyond the $5 million mark, according to state Election Law Enforcement Commission filings.

Democrats did better, receiving nearly 150 percent the Republican's totals.

In the final week of the race, the joint Whelan-Cooper-Tyner campaign saw $408,892 in cash and in-kind donations come in. The New Jersey Senate Democratic Majority provided $350,000 in "media expenses," while the state Democratic Party underwrote $5,245 in direct mail and the county Democratic Party paid for $2,795 in T-shirts.

Republicans Polistina and Amodeo received $273,885 together, including a total of $175,000 from the New Jersey Senate Republican Majority, and the $8,200 maximum from four other Republican state senators.

Staff Writer Rob Spahr contributed to this report.

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