The national political environment favored the GOP in 1966. It was the mid-term election of Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson, and the war in Vietnam had just begun to divide the nation.
In New Jersey, Republican Clifford Case was seeking re-election to a third term in the United States Senate, and even though Democrats scored huge wins a year earlier (Governor Richard Hughes was re-elected in a landslide and Democrats captured both houses of the Legislative), few believed the popular Case, with strong support from traditional Democratic base voters like organized labor, was going to lose.
Hughes sought to recruit the man he viewed as the strongest possible candidate: Robert Meyner, who served as Governor from 1954 to 1962. He went as far as to publicly declare that Meyner was the only Democrat who beat Case, and when Meyner declined (he had his eyes on a return to Trenton, and ran for Governor — without success — three years later), Hughes told reporters that he believed Case would now be re-elected.
That made it even tougher for Democrats to find a candidate — a sacrificial lamb — to run in a race that would not go well. Their first candidate was Adrian Foley, an 45-year-old lawyer (he is currently a named partner at Connell Foley LLP in Livingston) who had won election as Essex County Surrogate at age 32 and became President of the New Jersey Bar Association in 1963. Foley had initially agreed to run, and then backed out when he became President of the 1966 New Jersey Constitutional Convention.
Democrats still didn’t have a candidate in June — the primary was in September in those days — and party leaders began to scramble. The offered the slot to Ned Parsekian, a 44-year-old State Senator from Bergen County (he was elected eight months earlier) with a reputation for political independence. He had served as Acting Director of the state Division of Motor Vehicles, and because of his unwillingness to use the office for political purposes, the State Senate had held his nomination as Director for three years; in 1964, his nomination as a Superior Court Judge was also blocked.
Parsekian declined the chance to challenge Case. He lost his re-election to the Senate in 1967, mounted an unsuccessful campaign for the Democratic nomination for Governor in 1969 (against Meyner), and lost a Democratic primary for Congress in 1974 to Andrew Maguire, who went on to upset eleven-term Republican William Widnall in the Watergate landslide. Parsekian died in 2008.
The Democrats were also turned down by John Bullitt, the 41-year-old Director of the state’s anti-poverty program and a former Assistant U.S. Secretary of the Treasury in the Kennedy Administration.
Finally, the nomination went to Warren Wilentz, 42, a former Middlesex County Prosecutor and the son of one of the state’s most powerful political bosses. David Wilentz served as state Attorney General in the 1930’s (he prosecuted Bruno Richard Hauptmann for kidnapping and murdering Charles Lindbergh’s infant son) and as the leader of the Middlesex County Democratic organization. Wilentz was on his honeymoon in Hawaii when party leaders called him and asked him to run.
In the Democratic primary, Wilentz ran as a supporter of Johnson’s Vietnam policy and defeated an anti-war candidate, Rutgers University Professor David Frost, by a 75%-12% margin. Three other Democrats ran: John Winberry, a sales tax opponent; Clarence Coggins, an African-American leader from Newark; and Jerry Burmeister, an opponent of civil rights legislation.
Case defeated Wilentz by a wide margin — 60%-37% — in the general election, as Republicans nationally picked up two U.S. Senate seats and 47 House seats. Wilentz never ran for office again, though he would play a major role in state Democratic politics for the next 35 years. His Woodbridge-based law firm is one of the largest in the state, and his brother, Robert Wilentz, who had won a State Assembly seat in 1967, spent seventeen years as the Chief Justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court. He wielded enormous political power until a tragic 2003 automobile accident left him paralyzed.