The 2018 campaign is only hours old, but the race for the U.S Senate has already begun in earnest. Democratic U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez on Tuesday unveiled his first video, a feel-good piece that portrays him as a regular New Jerseyan working for the people.
The positive message is typical of an introductory campaign piece, but also designed to counter the video his likely Republican opponent, former pharmaceutical executive Bob Hugin, began running a day earlier. The title of the spot, “Disgraced,” summarizes its message, and Menendez’s biggest roadblock to re-election — the now dismissed corruption charges and still pending ethics inquiry into his relationship with a Florida doctor he calls a good friend.
The blue wave
Still, many say the race is Menendez’s to lose. This traditionally blue state has not elected a Republican to the U.S. Senate since 1972. The mood in New Jersey toward the Trump administration in Washington, D.C. is decidedly negative. And with several House seats in safely red districts considered in play in this midterm election, a potential blue wave would also seem to favor Menendez. Then there’s his reputation as a fighter.
“If I were a betting man, my money would be on Senator Menendez to win,” said Matthew Hale, a professor of political science and public affairs at Seton Hall University. “He has huge support among the Democratic infrastructure and establishment. He can raise money with the best of them, and he won his court case. That is a pretty strong hand.”
That case is the one brought in April 2015 against Menendez and Florida ophthalmologist Salomon Melgen, whom Menendez calls a close friend and who was a campaign donor. The U.S. Justice Department indicted both men, charging Menendez accepted 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, but DOJ officials initially vowed to retry Menendez. Instead, they dropped all charges at the end of January. The 64-year-old who has served a dozen years in the Senate still faces a probe by the Senate Select Committee on Ethics, which announced its intention to resume an investigation it had begun in 2012 and had put on hold for the duration of the DOJ inquiry.
Time for a change?
Released on Monday, the Hugin ad begins with 45 seconds of television news personalities recounting the details of the charges against Menendez before a voice states, “That’s not friendship. That’s corruption. Bob Menendez may have avoided prison, but he disgraced New Jersey. Time for a change.”
“New Jersey deserves a Senator who will represent them with honesty and integrity in Washington and fight for them every day — not one who spends his time trying to stay one step ahead of the law,” said Megan Piwowar, a Hugin campaign spokeswoman. “The more voters compare Menendez’s failed, corrupt track record with Bob Hugin’s background as a former Marine and job-creating business leader, we are confident that New Jersey voters will elect Bob Hugin and give our state a Senator we can be proud of again.”
The 60-second video the Menendez campaign posted on YouTube, titled “Your hopes, your dreams, your future,” seeks to rebut Hugin’s attack. Featuring footage from the Senator’s campaign kickoff last week, it paints Menendez as a regular guy who grew up in Union City and is fighting for New Jerseyans and against Trump. In it, Democratic stars Gov. Phil Murphy and fellow U.S. Sen. Cory Booker laud Menendez. He is called “indispensable” and someone who “always made us proud.”
Menendez himself seems to be alluding to the campaign battle in the video, telling the crowd at Union City High School that he “shares that Jersey attitude” that means “when the odds are long, we don’t give up; when the foe is big and strong, we don’t back down.”
“As Bob said, if you want to know who he is and for whom he fights, you have to know where he came from — Union City, a hard-working New Jersey community,” said Michael Soliman, a former Menendez staffer now serving as his campaign chairman. “We are releasing this new video because we believe it captures the energy, enthusiasm — and strong New Jersey roots — driving Senator Menendez’s campaign for re-election.”
The Menendez campaign remains positive, despite a Hugin surrogate’s trashing the ad. Bob Salera, the deputy communications director of the National Republican Senate Committee, issued a statement saying the ad is Menendez’s effort to change his image, but New Jersey voters won’t be fooled.
“New Jersey voters are too smart to fall for disgraced Sen. Bob Menendez’s phony ‘man of the people’ act,” Salera said. “Menendez is a crook, and an embarrassment to New Jersey and the U.S. Senate, and no amount of slick campaign videos will hide that fact.”
Menendez ahead in early poll
It’s early, but as of March, New Jersey voters favor Menendez over Hugin. A poll by Quinnipiac University found that 38 percent of voters believe the Senator was involved in “serious wrongdoing,” but he also leads Hugin by 17 points, with 49 percent of those voting supporting him. The same poll found 63 percent disapprove of Trump, whom Hugin supports.
Despite a “mixed message” from voters polled, “in very blue New Jersey, the big ‘D’ next to Menendez’s name is a big asset,” said Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac Poll, on releasing it last month.
Also likely to help Menendez, and wind up in ads supporting his candidacy, are troubles Hugin’s former company Celgene has faced in recent years. Hugin is the former chairman and CEO of the pharmaceutical company, based in Summit.
Perhaps the most serious mark against Celgene is the $280 million it agreed to pay last year to settle a lawsuit brought by a whistleblower. According to the suit, the pharmaceutical giant had pressured its sales staff to push doctors to use two drugs to treat types of cancer they had not been proven effective against. The company denied the allegations but settled it to avoid protracted litigation.
Such problems will make it more difficult for Hugin to attack Menendez’s ethics, said Hale.
“For Republicans to make a true case against him for supposed ethics violations, they would have to have a candidate who is squeaky clean on that score. Mr. Hugin and his pharmaceutical company are not squeaky clean. That makes it difficult for him to push the ethics issues,” Hale said.
All the sparring is a bit premature. First, the candidates have to get past primary opponents — one Democrat for Menendez and four other Republicans for Hugin. Still, they are not expected to have any problem winning their respective primaries.
There is no doubt this will be an expensive race. Menendez had already raised close to $6 million at the end of 2017 and had spent more than half of that. He started the year with $4.1 million in the bank. While Hugin has yet to file a campaign report with the Federal Elections Committee — the filing deadline for first-quarter activity is not until April 15 — he reportedly has told Republicans he is prepared to spend as much as $20 million in an effort to win the seat.
“This campaign will have lots of money and lots of mud,” Hale said. “Both candidates have weaknesses that the other one will try to exploit. Both will have the resources to do that. It’s going to be a multi-million dollar massive mud fest.”