Watson Coleman makes dent in New Jersey's congressional boys club; party divide still 6-6


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TRENTON, New Jersey — After 12 years as an all-boys club, New Jersey's congressional delegation is adding a woman.

Bonnie Watson Coleman, a state lawmaker since 1998, was elected Tuesday to represent central New Jersey's 12th Congressional District, keeping the seat in Democratic control after Rep. Rush Holt decided not to seek re-election. Watson Coleman also will be the first black woman to represent New Jersey in Congress.

Watson Coleman easily defeated Republican Alieta Eck.

She is the first woman in the state's House delegation since Republican Marge Roukema left office in 2003.

Earlier Tuesday, Watson Coleman was asked whether it matters to women to have a woman representing the state.

"I think they matter when we consider the participation of women and minorities," she said. It matters for the state since it's progressive and diverse, she added.

She's one of three new members of Congress from New Jersey — all in open seats. Nine incumbents hung onto their seats, despite some minor scares in a few districts. That leaves the state with its current 6-6 partisan divide in House seats.

Voters also returned Democrat Cory Booker to the U.S. Senate for a full term as he defeated Republican Jeff Bell, keeping alive a 40-year winning streak for Democrats in New Jersey races for the U.S. Senate.

Voters also approved two changes to the state constitution. One dedicates a portion of corporate tax revenue to preserving open space. The other eliminates the right to bail for those accused of crimes, part of a bail overhaul intended to make it easier to keep suspects deemed dangerous in jail as they await trial and to free suspects who are not considered dangerous.

Republicans kept the 3rd District seat as Tom MacArthur defeated Aimee Belgard in the states' most expensive, nastiest and most closely watched congressional race this year. That seat is being vacated by Jon Runyan, who decided to leave Congress after two terms.

MacArthur spent $5 million of his own money in the race.

Advocacy groups that are not legally able to coordinate activities with the official campaigns poured in another $3.5 million.

In a year when Republicans had momentum nationally because of President Barack Obama's low approval ratings, Democratic groups saw the district as one of their better shots of picking up a seat. Conservative groups came in to pay defense.

The result was a barrage of ads attacking the candidates' characters.

Belgard's concession was not particularly conciliatory. She said that the district still needs someone to advocate for issues she spoke about during the campaign, including equal pay for women, raising the federal minimum wage and protecting Social Security and Medicare.

In his statement, MacArthur did not name Belgard but referred to her campaign. "With our victory tonight, I am proud to say that the voters chose substance over sound bites, optimistic solutions over angry ideology," he said.

Democrats easily retained the 1st District seat after longtime Rep. Rob Andrews resigned earlier this year. There, Democrat Donald Norcross, a state senator and brother of powerbroker George Norcross, easily defeated Republican Garry Cobb, who was best known as a former Philadelphia Eagles linebacker. Norcross will take office later this year as the winner of a special election to fill the remainder of Andrews' term.

Two districts long held by Republicans appeared close in polls during the race. But the incumbents retained both seats with comfortable margins.

In southern New Jersey's 2nd District, Frank LoBiondo defeated Democrat Bill Hughes Jr.

In the state's northernmost district, the 5th, Scott Garrett turned back Democrat Roy Cho.

Cho, a first-time candidate, hinted at a political future in a statement he released Tuesday night. "We brought Democrats, moderate Republicans, and independents together like never before," he said. "We may have lost an election, but we have built a strong base for the future."

AP writer Michael Catalini in Trenton contributed to this article.

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