Hillary Rodham Clinton tonight became the first president’s wife to win elected office, defeating Republican Rep. Rick Lazio in the most expensive, highest-profile Senate race in American history.
Shortly after 11 p.m. ET, Mrs. Clinton took to the stage in the packed ballroom of the Grand Hyatt in Manhattan to address a cheering crowd of 2,000 supporters.
“I just wanna say from the bottom of my heart: Thank you New York!” she said, drawing wild applause.
At the victorious first lady’s side were her husband, President Clinton, daughter Chelsea, Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, and the man she is replacing, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan.
Mrs. Clinton poked fun at her campaign-trail wardrobe and the wild nature of the race, which saw her original opponent, New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani withdraw amid a prostate cancer diagnosis and marital difficulties.
“Sixty-two counties, 16 months, three debates, two opponents and six black pantsuits later,” she said, “here we are!”
Lazio told his supporters he had phoned Mrs. Clinton to congratulate her on her victory and called for unity among New Yorkers.
“It’s time for us to hold our heads up high and to unify our state and to stand together,” the congressman said during his concession speech.
No matter which presidential candidate — Republican George W. Bush or Democrat Al Gore — lays claim to the White House, the “Clinton era” in politics will live on when the president’s wife is sworn in as the junior senator from New York next year.
“She won this election, not because she was first lady, but because she worked hard,” Schumer said. “She won this election the old-fashioned way: She earned it.”
Her supporters were equally thrilled with the victory.
“As a New Yorker, I’m proud of her because I think she represents the spirit of New York,” said Judy Farrell, 42, a Bronx resident. “You can come from anywhere in the country or the world and make it here — she’ll represent us well in the Senate.”
Mrs. Clinton soundly defeated her opponent, garnering 55 percent of the vote to Lazio’s 43 percent.
‘Race of the Century’
Even before Mrs. Clinton officially declared her candidacy in February, the contest was being billed as “the race of the century.” But the ballot battle that ended in a win tonight for the first lady was a different campaign than when it began.
New York voters and political pundits alike had been anticipating a race between the first lady and the outspoken mayor of New York City. It was not until May, when Giuliani’s Senate hopes were sidelined that Lazio — a congressman little known outside his Long Island district — was thrust into the limelight. He declared his candidacy the day after the mayor announced his decision not to run.
Many observers speculated Republicans’ chances would be damaged by Lazio’s late entry into the race. But others argued the congressman, a lesser-known but far less polarizing figure than the man he replaced, offered a better chance of victory in a race against a woman who is a lightning rod for Republicans and conservatives who dislike her husband.
Lazio was conscious of the fact he was running against a first lady with higher disapproval ratings than any of her predecessors. He ran what many of the journalists covering him referred to as a “stealth campaign,” keeping a low profile through much of the early stage of the race, hoping to allow his opponent to become the issue.
In the end, however, what Giuliani called the “ABC” or “anybody but Clinton” vote was not large enough to give Lazio a win in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans by some 2 million voters.
“I feel like the Mets,” Lazio joked, referring to the New York baseball team defeated by the Yankees in this year’s World Series. “We came in second.”
Keys to Victory
To prevail, Lazio needed to trounce his Democratic rival in conservative upstate New York, to counter Mrs. Clinton’s support in metropolitan New York City, where he was beaten 74 percent to 24 percent, according to exit polls. But Clinton campaigned aggressively upstate and the overwhelming support Lazio hoped for from that traditional Republican stronghold did not materialize on Election Day, with the two candidates splitting the upstate vote.
The symbolism of this hard-fought race transcended even its significance as part of the larger struggle for control of the Senate. If ever there was a national Senate race, this was it. The candidates’ respective parties poured in money and resources and the national press corps descended on the Empire State to cover the contest.
The Clinton, Lazio (and Giuliani) campaigns combined to spend an unprecedented $79.5 million through mid-October, and they received support from a slew of high-profile backers — most notably President Clinton, who stumped and raised money on behalf of his wife, and former Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who campaigned alongside Lazio.
State party figures also eagerly coalesced around the nominees. Moynihan, Schumer, former New York City Mayor Ed Koch, former Gov. Mario Cuomo; and outspoken Rep. Charles Rangel served as surrogates for the first lady. Giuliani, Gov. George Pataki and other big name Republicans lined up behind Lazio.
As Mrs. Clinton worked to cast Lazio as an ultra-conservative disciple of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich — criticizing his congressional record on education, health care and economic issues — Lazio tried to paint the first lady as a “carpetbagger” and argued her Senate run was nothing more than a stepping-stone to higher office. He needled the Illinois native constantly for having only moved to Chappaqua, N.Y., in January.
Lazio attacked Mrs. Clinton’s “soft money” fund-raising practices and tried to tar the first lady with her husband’s many scandals in an effort to raise doubts about her own trustworthiness. He focused less on policy matters and more on “character” and “integrity.”
In their fierce pursuit of the crucial Jewish vote — which accounted for 14 percent of the ballots cast today — Clinton and Lazio traded barbs over Middle East policy, with each candidate challenging the other’s commitment to Israel. Mrs. Clinton won the Jewish vote, but by a much smaller margin than typical Democratic candidates — 56 percent of Jews in the state voted for Mrs. Clinton as compared with 81 percent for Gore.
Mrs. Clinton also performed extremely well among women — earning 61 percent of the female vote — and even better among minorities — garnering the support of nine in 10 blacks and 85 percent of Hispanics. The overall male vote was split evenly between the two candidates.
The Road Ahead
Mrs. Clinton began her candidacy with a “Listening Tour” last July. She will end it with a victory tour across the state beginning on Wednesday, aides said. Then, it will be back to Washington to resume her duties as first lady at an official dinner Thursday evening in honor of the 200th anniversary of the White House, with former first ladies and presidents attending.
When she takes office next year, Mrs. Clinton will go from being a first lady to one of 100 senators, and a member of a party that will likely be in the minority. It remains to be seen how she will be received by her Senate colleagues, particularly those on the other side of the aisle.
Tonight, however, Mrs. Clinton promised a bipartisan approach. “I promise you tonight that I will reach across party lines to bring progress for all of New York’s families,” she said. “Today we voted as Democrats and Republicans — tomorrow we begin again as New Yorkers.”
ABCNEWS’ Eileen Muprhy and Stephen Yesner contributed to this report.