Now that the primary is over, the battle of the Bobs for New Jersey’s U.S. Senate seat begins in earnest and though he may be bruised, Sen. Robert Menendez is still the favorite to win after what is expected to be by all accounts a nasty, negative campaign.
Menendez (D-NJ), a 12-year incumbent, had a lackluster win on Tuesday over a virtually unknown Lisa McCormick, garnering just 62 percent of the vote. He lost to the local news publisher in six counties – Cape May, Hunterdon, Salem, Somerset, Sussex and Warren. All but Somerset are Republican-dominant with low Democratic registration. His only dominant majorities of more than 70 percent were in Essex and Hudson counties, which have strong Democratic machines, and in Bergen.
But at least two national politics ratings continue to rate New Jersey’s Senate race this year as a likely Democratic win and Jersey-based pundits agree, although it is not likely to be as easy as his 20-point victory in 2012.
“All the news about Sen. Menendez leading up to the primary was bad, it won’t be in the general election,” said Matthew Hale, a professor of political science and public affairs at Seton Hall University, noting that the Senate Ethics Committee “severely admonished” Menendez less than six weeks before the primary. “A lot of people who voted for McCormick are going to come back to Sen. Menendez in November.”
Hale said the November election will wind up being less about the corruption charges against Menendez — of which he was not convicted — and more about the latest scandal involving the Trump administration. Menendez was charged with accepting gifts and travel from a campaign donor on whose behalf he intervened with a federal agency. Menendez said the gifts were from a friend. A trial led to a hung jury and the Justice Department has since dropped the charges.
“I think Trump is really the number one issue,” Hale said. “Voters are going to think the stakes are just too high to give the Republicans another seat.”
There are several factors favoring Menendez.
For one thing, the numbers are on his side. With nearly all the votes counted, Menendez got about 92,000 more votes in the primary than Republican Bob Hugin, the former pharmaceuticals executive from Summit who won three-quarters of the votes on his way to victory Tuesday. Almost 37 percent of all those registered at the end of April were Democrats, compared with 22 percent who were Republicans. The majority are unaffiliated, but that does not mean Hugin can count on them. New Jerseyans have not voted for a Republican for U.S. Senate since 1972.
Hugin’s deep pockets – his candidate’s financial disclosure 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 ¬– and his willingness to spend $20 million on his own race are in his favor.
But another problem for Hugin is that Menendez is not going to be quiet and leave the Republican’s constant attacks unanswered in the fall, as he did before the primary. Hugin had loaned his campaign $7.5 million through May 16 and spent nearly $2.6 million on media and print advertising, running two negative ads laying out the charges against Menendez. He bought air time before or during shows that are popular with Democrats, including The Late Show with Stephen Colbert on CBS and The Daily Show on Comedy Central.
“Menendez was attacked by the Republican side in advance of the primary to drive his numbers down,” said Julie Roginsky, a longtime Democratic strategist during aat the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University yesterday. Roginsky said the Hugin ads that went unanswered were one major reason why Menendez polled poorly Tuesday. Menendez, who had raised nearly $8 million and had $5.6 million in the bank as of May 16, did not advertise on television before the primary because the campaign did not see the need, facing a primary challenger who did no advertising or in-person campaigning, and wanted to keep as much as possible in reserve for the fall. The incumbent has been an effective fundraiser and said he will have enough money to “be competitive” in the fall.
Roginsky agreed with Hale that the fall election is going to be more of a referendum on Trump and that Menendez is going to tie his opponent to the president — who is unpopular in New Jersey: Hugin was a delegate for Trump and contributed close to $610,000 to Republicans, including Trump, during the 2016 federal election cycle.
At the same Eagleton forum, former Assemblyman and unsuccessful Republican gubernatorial primary candidate Jack Ciattarelli disagreed.
“Menendez and his indictment and his personal situation counterbalances any Trump effect here,” Ciattarelli said. He said Hugin is not a blind supporter of the president and “stood up and said the president was wrong” on his tax-reform law, his plan to drill off the Jersey shore, and his opposition to funding for the Gateway Tunnel to New York City.
He sees the campaign as “a horse race with a photo finish” that will send Hugin to Washington.
Several pundits said the public still does not know who Hugin is, or given voters a reason to support him, rather than vote against Menendez as much of his campaign so far has been about attacking the Democrat.
“Bob Menendez has not yet defined Bob Hugin,” Roginsky said. “When he does, you are going to have a race where both men’s ethics are going to be challenged. Then putting aside the pox on both their houses, voters are going to think about sending a message to Donald Trump.”
Menendez gave a preview during his election night statement of the attacks he plans to level, and in an interview on the eve of the election, in which he charged that Hugin’s money “comes on the backs of cancer patients” and that he is a Trump supporter.
“He had an election conversion,” Menendez said. “He will try to create a distance between himself and Trump. It’s hard for him to do that when Trump’s very policies are hurting New Jersey.”
Menendez’s campaign and the candidate himself say Hugin’s ethical problems revolve around an expensive Celgene cancer drug and a $280 million settlement the company paid to settle a whistleblower suit that it pushed two cancer drugs for unapproved uses and submitted false Medicare claims.
Hugin said in his post-election remarks Tuesday that Celgene “has done more good for people in the last 25 minutes than Bob Menendez has done in Washington for 25 years,” which would include his time in the House as well as the Senate.
Bob Salera, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, issued a statement continuing the attacks on Menendez, saying his poor showing in the election was “the latest bad news for the jet-setting, bribe-taking Senator” and that it leaves the national Democratic party “with a tough choice ahead of whether to spend millions to prop up a crook in a blue state.”
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee fired back with an attack on Hugin. Spokesman David Bergstein said Hugin fought for years against efforts to lower drug prices and spent $2.8 million in 2017 lobbying to help block legislation that could have sped up generic alternatives to its Revlimid cancer drug.
“As a CEO for a big pharmaceutical company, Bob Hugin made his millions by keeping prescription drug costs high and misleading cancer patients,” Bergstein said. “He’s one of President Trump’s biggest backers and would be a rubber stamp for the Trump Administration in the Senate. The choice between Hugin and Senator Menendez, who tirelessly fights for New Jersey, could not be clearer.”
Hale summed up the campaign New Jerseyans are going to be facing: “It’s going to be corruption versus cancer patients. It’s going to be a nasty, dirty brawl of an election.”
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