At the first and only debate this election season of the two Bobs running for the U.S. Senate, both men repeated the well-worn ethics charges about one another that have dominated the campaign, but they talked substantively on a number of issues and even agreed, if only partially, on a few, including immigration and healthcare.
Democratic incumbent Bob Menendez and Republican challenger Bob Hugin brought some of the same negativity that has characterized most of their ads into NJTV’s Newark studio. But the meeting was especially noteworthy because it also brought an apology from each man for one of the transgressions for which he has been criticized.
The 64-year-old two-term Senator did not try to make excuses for his corruption trial, which ended in a hung jury, and his subsequent censure by the Senate Select Committee on Ethics. In answer to a pointed question about it, Menendez looked straight into the camera and said, “I understand there are people in this state who are disappointed and I apologize to them.”
Later, Hugin, a former pharmaceuticals executive who is also 64, answered a charge from Menendez that he had fought to keep women out of the exclusive all-male Princeton University eating club where he was president and that he said gays “wouldn’t last long” if they got into the Tiger Inn club by saying he looks back on these incidents with “regret,” and that his feelings have evolved.
“I’m glad my views have changed,” said Hugin, former CEO of Celgene. “My track record says that … I will fight for equality for all New Jerseyans.”
While the tenor of the debate was not as contentious as many might have expected, given the negativity of the ads, it was not cordial either. The men did not shake hands at either the start or end of their meeting, as is customary. And Hugin, who gave the first opening statement, came out swinging.
“Bob Menendez has failed and embarrassed us,” Hugin said. “Bob Menendez is going to try to make this debate about Donald Trump. He doesn’t want to say anything about his record of corruption and failure.”
Menendez did not disappoint Hugin and evoked the name of the president who is very unpopular in the state in his opening statement. He talked about his record in working for healthcare, gun safety, environmental protection and getting funds for Superstorm Sandy victims, and said why this election is so important.
“Everything we have fought for and won is threatened by the Trump administration,” he said.
There’s more at stake this year than just who represents New Jersey in the Senate, as Democrats are hoping to pick up two more seats to take the majority. The party must also defend all 26 blue seats on this year’s ballot and had not counted on having to truly defend an incumbent’s seat in a blue state.
Menendez has been leading in every poll, but his 5-to-10-point advantage makes the race relatively close. That’s due both to the federal corruption charges, now dismissed, and Hugin’s hammering of that issue in ads virtually nonstop since the primary. Hugin has a huge money advantage, having loaned his campaign $24 million, and spent three times more than Menendez through September 30 — $22.7 million by Hugin, versus $7 million by Menendez. After seeing the close poll numbers, Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer of New York decided to spend $3 million on anti-Hugin ads here.
Since most of the ads have been negative attacks on the other’s ethics, this was the first time voters have been able to see the men address issues. It turns out, they not only hail from the same town — Union City — but there is also much on which they agree. For starters, both are pro-choice.
Additionally, both said they would not change Medicaid or Medicare, and both want to ensure the continued health coverage of children up to age 26 and of pre-existing conditions. Hugin’s statement prompted Menendez to quip, “I’m glad to see it sounds like Mr. Hugin is endorsing the Affordable Health Care Act that I helped write.”
Hugin clarified that the ACA covered only 10 percent of Americans and hurt the working poor by requiring them to pay high deductibles, adding, “We need to make more significant changes.”
In discussing immigration, Hugin said he agreed with Menendez’s statements about the need for comprehensive reform, including a path to citizenship for those who are currently in the country with undocumented status.
“I do not think we should be talking about people building productive, constructive lives in America,” Hugin said, in answer to a question about whether Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents should be arresting and detaining undocumented immigrants who have not committed any crimes. “Our country is a country of immigrants. Immigrants make our country stronger.”
They did disagree on the security of the U.S.-Mexico border, with Menendez saying, “we’ve come a long way to making the border secure,” while Hugin said he does not “believe, from what I’ve seen or learned that our borders are secure.” Hugin added that the country needs “to be compassionate about how we operate our borders” and that separating families, as the Trump administration did for a time earlier this year is “absolutely unacceptable.”
Menendez sought to tie Hugin, whose television ads don’t mention his political party, to Trump over and over and said he does not believe Hugin’s proclamations that he is a moderate. Several times, Menendez said it’s curious that his opponent disagrees with the president since he “helped put him in office” by donating hundreds of thousands of dollars to Trump and the Republican National Committee and serving as a delegate for Trump to the 2016 national convention and as a member of his transition team.
“He would be another foot soldier to Donald Trump,” Menendez said after the debate. “The last thing we need to do is vote another Republican into office.” Menendez also brought up several times one of the themes of most of his ads, which focus on Hugin’s record while CEO of Celgene. In particular, he said that Hugin profited from the sale of a cancer drug on which the company raised the price three times in one year. “Who does that?” Menendez asked, while looking at Hugin. The challenger responded that 90 percent of cancer patients paid no more than $50 for the drug, whose market price at one point rose as high as $20,000 for a 28-day supply.
There were a couple of issues on which the two disagreed.
Both said they believe climate change is real and serious. But Menendez said the United States needs to get back into the Paris Climate Agreement, as we are “the only country in the world not engaged in leading on climate change.” Hugin gave an answer that sounded Trump-like, saying he would only support getting back into the agreement if it is renegotiated to be fairer: “There need to be fair deals. America has been exploited for too long.”
And they had very different views on the recent contentious confirmation to the Supreme Court of Brett Kavanaugh. Menendez said he voted against Kavanaugh when he was first nominated to the appeals court, thinks he is not a mainstream judge, and was disturbed that Kavanaugh said the Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion was “wrongly decided.” Hugin, who backed Kavanaugh, said he would support judges “with intellect who will interpret the Constitution and not be legislating from the bench.”
Despite a somewhat tame debate in the studio, the atmosphere outside the event more mirrored the vituperative atmosphere of the ads, with throngs of supporters for both candidates waving signs, chanting and yelling at one another across the hallway inside the Gateway complex where NJTV is located.
Pundits are uncertain how much of an impact the debate, less than two weeks before election day, will have. Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Poll, said most voters made up their minds long ago and are “dug in” behind their candidate.
The debate was open to any candidate who received at least 10 percent support in the polls. There are six other third-party or independent candidates on the ballot: Libertarian Murray Sabrin, Madelyn Hoffman of the Green Party and Hank Schroeder, Tricia Flanagan, Kevin Kimple and Natalie Lynn Rivera.