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Putting Primary Candidates in Place: Who's Got a Shot at NJ's Senate Seat?

It’s been a low-key campaign thus far, but the contenders could catch fire — especially Menendez and Hugin — as June gets closer

menendez hugin
U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez (left) and Republican senatorial hopeful Bob Hugin

Based on the primary campaign by Republican senatorial hopeful Bob Hugin, one might think he is already running against New Jersey’s senior U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez, the Democratic incumbent.

But both Hugin and Menendez face rivals in their respective primaries — Brian Goldberg for the Republican and Lisa McCormick for the Democratic — before an expected face-off against one another this fall.

Were it not for the ads Hugin is running on television, it would be hard to tell there is even a June election for one of the state’s six-year terms in the U.S. Senate. The four candidates, two Democrats and two Republicans — reduced from an initial field of five who filed petitions last month — have been making campaign appearances. But there have been no debates on either side and little to no spending yet on ads or mailers.

“The Senate race in New Jersey is completely focused on November,” said Ben Dworkin, director of the Institute for Public Policy and Citizenship at Rowan University. “Hugin and Menendez will get their respective party nominations this June and neither is facing a serious challenge in that effort.”

Political handicappers consider Menendez, who has represented New Jersey in the Senate for the past dozen years, likely to win re-election despite the federal corruption charges that dogged him for two-and-a-half years. But first, he must get past McCormick, the owner and publisher of a community news website.

Soft support for the senator

Support for Menendez among New Jerseyans is soft: A Rutgers-Eagleton poll released last week found just a third of those surveyed approve of the job Menendez is doing, with 37 percent disapproving. Similarly, less than a quarter of participants have a positive view of Menendez, with 35 percent having a negative impression of him. His rating has never been that high, peaking around 40 percent three years ago.

“A large number continue to be almost as ambivalent toward the senior senator as when he first took office in 2006,” said Ashley Koning, director of the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling at Rutgers University in New Brunswick. “Time will tell how these lackluster ratings play out for Menendez in his re-election year, where he may face a well-financed challenger.”

Lisa McCormick
Lisa McCormick is challenging Sen. Bob Menendez in the Democratic primary.

McCormick contends that if the poll had asked a “horse race” question, “it would have shown this to be a close race.” She said Menendez’s low approval rating can only help her and said she has more than 4,000 volunteers and has identified more than 100,000 “supportive voters.”

Still, Menendez has gotten the endorsement of all the county Democratic committees, and pundits say that most primary voters are the party faithful and they tend to vote for the party line.

Menendez by more than a length

The most recent election poll pitting Menendez against Hugin found the incumbent with a 21-point lead. An April 12 Monmouth University Poll gave Menendez the support of 53 percent of registered voters, compared with 33 percent for Hugin. Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, said at least some of Menendez’s strong support comes simply from his being a Democrat in a blue state. New Jerseyans have not elected a Republican to the U.S. Senate since 1972.

Son of Cuban immigrants, Menendez was a lawyer who worked his way up the Hudson County political ladder, serving as a board of education member then mayor of Union City, to the state Assembly, then Senate, and to the House of Representatives before being tapped by then-Gov. Jon Corzine in 2006 to fill the seat Corzine was vacating to become governor. Now living in Paramus, he is a man of limited means: His 2017 income-tax return shows a $171,000 adjusted gross income with most of that his $152,000 Senate salary; his financial disclosure statement filed with the U.S. Senate indicates he has less than $115,000 in savings and checking accounts, less than $15,000 in stocks, and a home worth between $250,000 and $500,000 that he rents out.

Federal Election Commission records show that Menendez had raised $4.5 million toward his re-election through March 31, spent $802,000 and had $5.3 million cash on hand, including funds from prior elections.

It is unclear how much McCormick has raised, with the pre-primary campaign finance filing deadline still a day away. She said it is “not a lot of money.” No financial disclosure report for her was on file with the Senate.

‘Matters of life and death’

“What makes me especially qualified is that I have never been indicted for bribery and never will give cause to be,” said McCormick, who studied industrial engineering at Rochester Institute of Technology and worked at a number of companies before taking over the publishing firm she renamed CMD Media in 2006. “The government deals with matters of life and death, issues that impact people I love as well as my brothers and sisters across the planet … Americans cannot leave those challenges to selfish, greedy people who do not care about us.”

Recognizing she is competing against a better-known and better-financed incumbent, McCormick said she ran because “voters need more and better choices” and was critical not only of Menendez’s indictment on corruption charges but also of his record.

“Even if I cannot win, this is a fight worth fighting because our lives are at stake. The incumbent has disgraced New Jersey and the U.S. Senate, plus he should be held accountable for the failures of his entire 25-years in Congress on gun violence, the minimum wage, inequality, deregulation at the FCC and Wall Street, the loss of manufacturing jobs, and all of it,” she said. “More broadly, we cannot understate the significance of the times. The Atomic Scientists' Doomsday Clock, a symbol for humanity’s approach toward self-destruction, is at two minutes to midnight. It advanced from 17 minutes when voters first sent my opponent to Washington.”

Should she win, McCormick said her top priority would be to repair “our broken political system” by giving candidates greater access to postage or broadcast air time, giving voters vouchers they can use to donate to candidates and reversing the impact of the Citizens United decision that allows companies, labor unions, nonprofits, and others to make unlimited independent expenditures for or against candidates. She also would work to improve the quality of life for the middle class, including free public college education, universal health care, and serious criminal justice reform.

Progressive profile

Menendez did not return a request for an interview made with his campaign.

He is ranked 21st most-progressive member of the Senate, voting more than 90 percent of the time for important progressive measures throughout his career, according to the website Progressive Punch. The independent GovTrack website ranked him the 10th most-liberal Senator of those serving at least a decade in Washington.

According to his campaign website, Menendez’s top priorities are increasing economic growth and wages, improving healthcare, reforming Wall Street and protecting consumers, combatting climate change and protecting the Jersey Shore, and passing comprehensive immigration reform. He backed the Affordable Care Act, the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and voted to increase the federal minimum wage. On Tuesday, he introduced a bill meant to protect from deportation immigrant workers who report unsafe or unlawful labor practices. He has called for stricter gun control and voted last week to restore net neutrality and prevent internet service providers from giving faster access to some content than others. He has been a vocal critic of numerous policies from the administration of President Donald Trump.

While Menendez’s politics play well in blue New Jersey, his greatest liability is the recent court case against him. The U.S. Justice Department in April 2015 indicted Menendez and Florida ophthalmologist Salomon Melgen, whom Menendez calls a close friend and who was a campaign donor. Menendez was charged with accepting almost $1 million in gifts and campaign contributions from Melgen in exchange for using his Senate office to influence the outcome of a contractual dispute with the Dominican Republic, a Medicare billing dispute, and the travel visa applications of three of Melgen’s girlfriends.

The nine-week trial against Menendez last fall ended in a mistrial. DOJ officials initially vowed to retry Menendez, but then dropped all charges at the end of January. Still, the Senate Select Committee on Ethics last month issued a public letter of admonition in the case it had opened in 2012, stating that Menendez’s actions violated Senate rules and related statutes and “severely admonished” him.

Hugin: ‘No place in Congress’

Hugin’s campaign seizes on the case at just about every turn, most recently stating in a campaign release that the Democratic party’s new anti-corruption proposals unveiled Monday would close loopholes that have allowed Menendez and others to escape conviction. Hugin said in a statement that Menendez’s “unethical behavior … should have no place in Congress.”

Michael Soliman, Menendez’s campaign manager, responded by attacking what may be Hugin’s greatest weakness from his time as CEO of Celgene, a pharmaceuticals company based in Summit.

“The fact is that greedy drug company CEO Bob Hugin paid a $280 million settlement for a court case where his company was accused of defrauding taxpayers, ripping off cancer patients, and giving payoffs to doctors,” Soliman said. “Bob Hugin has gotten very rich while making it harder for cancer patients to get affordable prescriptions. Apparently Hugin thinks you can just buy your way out of legal trouble.”

In settling the case, brought by a whistleblower, the company denied the allegations and said it settled to avoid protracted litigation.

Hugin, who like Menendez grew up in Union City, graduated from Princeton University in 1976 and became CEO of Celgene in 2010. He joined the company in 1999, after having spent 14 years at JP Morgan and Co. He is also a former U.S. Marine and sits on the board of trustees of Princeton University, the Darden Foundation at the University of Virginia, and Family Promise.

Hugin’s deep pockets

But unlike Menendez, Hugin has a vast portfolio of investments – spanning 29 pages of his federal financial disclosure form. More than 20 of his bank accounts and investments are worth more than $1 million; his deferred compensation from Celgene is worth between $5 million and $25 million, while he valued his Celgene stock at more than $50 million. That form lists his total income for 2017 through March 31, 2018 at $48.4 million, with $46.9 million of that represented by his salary, bonus, exercised stock options and equity grants from Celgene.

Hugin’s Senate campaign reported $7.9 million in receipts through March 31, with the bulk of that $7.5 million in loans from the candidate, according to FEC records. He had spent more than $1 million and had $6.8 million in cash on hand.

By contrast, his primary opponent Brian Goldberg had raised just $2,400, spent $1,400, and had about $1,100 in cash on hand as of March 31. No financial disclosure form was on file for Goldberg, a construction company executive from West Orange who ran unsuccessfully in the U.S. Senate primary four years ago.

Brian Goldberg
Brian Goldberg is Bob Hugin's challenger in the Republican primary.

Goldberg is running under the MAGA — short for Trump’s “Make America Great Again” — slogan in all counties, while Hugin received the GOP’s endorsement in all counties that supported a candidate. Neither candidate responded to a request for an interview by the deadline for this article. In Hugin’s case, his campaign said he was traveling in Israel last week. Campaign officials did not answer a question about whether Hugin attended the ceremony last Monday marking the opening of a new U.S. embassy in Jerusalem, a controversial decision Trump made that has sparked protests by the Palestinians. But his campaign put out a statement marking the event in which it criticized Menendez for “shamefully and disgracefully flip-flopping on the Iran Deal” because he originally opposed the deal but called it a “grave mistake” for Trump to walk away from it.

Hugin has contributed $1.6 million to candidates and parties, most of the Republicans, since January 1, 2015, including $105,000 to Trump. On his campaign website, Hugin lists a number of issues on which he disagrees with Trump, including the loss of full state- and property-tax deductions on federal income tax returns that was part of the tax-reform law. He has said he will not rubber-stamp the president’s proposals but will vote for what is best for New Jersey, if elected.

"I oppose any efforts that will unfairly hurt New Jerseyans, including the administration’s rescissions proposal to cut $7 billion from the Children’s Health Program and $107 million from funding for Hurricane Sandy relief,” Hugin said in a statement released Tuesday. “New Jersey is already dead last in the investment we get back from Washington, and there are plenty of areas Congress can save taxpayer money instead of on the backs of children and superstorm Sandy victims."

Hugin’s website lists as his priorities tax relief and getting more money back for New Jersey, jobs and the economy, healthcare reform, infrastructure, and restoring honesty and integrity to government. There are few specific proposals, however.

Goldberg’s goals

Goldberg’s campaign site lists three issues that are his main focus: more jobs and fewer taxes, a strong national defense, and protecting and defending the constitution. Specifically, he said he is a member of the National Rifle Association who will support the Second Amendment and national gun-licensing reciprocity among the states; is pro-life and backs defunding Planned Parenthood; and supports a border wall and wants to end lottery-based immigration. He also calls himself pro-Trump.

“The President has earned my support through both his actions and leadership since assuming office,” Goldberg’s website states. “A few of his accomplishments and policies of which I am especially impressed include: Nominating (and receiving confirmation of) conservative, constructionist judges; Tax reform; Repealing the ‘individual mandate’ associated with Obamacare; Recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel; Cutting federal regulations and the size of the federal workforce; Sending DACA back to Congress to craft legislation instead of an Executive Order; and numerous others.”

Conservatism and backing Trump are not likely to help him, though, in a state Trump lost and where he is unpopular.

The Senate race leads the ticket in the June 5 primary. The winners of the Republican and Democratic races will face off, along with independent candidates who file, in the November general election.

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