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Senate Race Has Been One for the Ages: Nasty, Noisome, Negative

Republican challenger Bob Hugin has spent millions of his own money to unleash savage ads against Sen. Bob Menendez who has fired back on a far smaller budget

Bob Menendez
U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez campaigning among friendly faces this week

Next Tuesday will end what ranks among the nastiest campaigns in New Jersey history, with a self-funding millionaire launching an incessant barrage of negative ads — including one deemed false by several fact checkers — against the incumbent U.S. Senator, who has done his best to fire back on a more limited budget.

Sen. Bob Menendez continues to hold a 5-point lead over Republican challenger Bob Hugin, the former pharmaceuticals CEO, in the two most recent polls and has never trailed in any independent polls, though the margin in internal polls was reportedly even closer. Democratic party notables have stepped up their efforts in his behalf. The Senate Majority PAC, the Senate Democrats’ top political action committee, recently put another $2.8 million into anti-Hugin ads, for a total $5.8 million. Gov. Phil Murphy spent Sunday campaigning with Menendez and the state’s senior senator also has been traveling with the more popular junior Sen. Cory Booker, another Democrat.

Bob Hugin
Republican candidate Bob Hugin out campaigning this week

Campaigning on Tuesday at an electronics manufacturing company in Rockaway, Hugin said the race is close and he can win with the right turnout. On Saturday he told Fox and Friends on Fox News that he has seen polls where he is ahead.

How close is the race? That depends on which poll or rater you consult.

The Cook Political Report rocked the state’s political elite last week when it changed its rating of the race to a toss-up. Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight quickly disagreed and gave the incumbent at least an 87 percent chance of winning. Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia and Inside Elections are both calling the seat a likely Democratic win.

Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, also continues to predict a Menendez win. Conducted in mid-October, the Monmouth Poll gave Menendez a margin of between 9 and 12 points among likely voters.

But that was before the Hugin campaign, and later the independent expenditure committee Integrity NJ — a group with close ties to former Gov. Chris Christie and funded by a number of wealthy current and former New Jersey Republicans — began running ads that make a salacious accusation against Menendez. The ads attempt to tie the incumbent to underage prostitutes. They have been widely debunked by several fact checkers, with the Washington Post giving the initial ad four Pinocchios, indicating it is a “whopper” of a false ad.

Hugin doubles down

Rather than stop making this accusation after being called on it, Hugin doubled down with an ad aimed at women that repeats the claim and includes a photo of Harvey Weinstein, who has been accused by dozens of women of sexual assault. Integrity NJ — which cannot legally coordinate with the Hugin campaign — continues to run a harder-hitting version of the debunked allegations.

Campaigning on Thursday with Menendez, state Sen. and former Gov. Richard Codey, D-Essex, called the ads “a disgrace,” adding, “I’ve been in politics a long time and I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Hugin has defended the ads, saying there is nothing inaccurate in them and they were approved by lawyers and that bringing to light the allegations — which were unproven and never acted upon by law enforcement — is appropriate because this election is “a job interview” and people deserve all the facts.

Despite the new ads, which are on top of several months’ worth of spots hammering Menendez for his ethics troubles, and despite Menendez getting a favorable rating from just 28 percent on his own Monmouth poll, Murray continues to say the election is “all about Trump” and that Menendez will win.

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“I haven’t seen anything that, in my experience, changes the underlying dynamics of this race,” Murray said. “There’s a point where you can oversaturate the airwaves with negative attacks and voters just tune it out. We’ve hit that point. Regardless of what they think of Menendez, a majority of New Jersey voters say Trump is the bigger factor in their choice for U.S. Senate.”

While New Jersey has a long history of negative advertising, the anti-Menendez onslaught has at least one longtime political observer saying that Hugin, who says he is a man of honor and integrity, has hit a new low in negative campaigning.

‘…it would take a pretty high bar to be so low’

“At first, I thought this was one of those things that people say and ask every election ... the worst in history,” said Cliff Zukin, an emeritus professor of political science and public policy at Rutgers University and senior adviser to the Eagleton Poll. “After all, we have such a rich history it would take a pretty high bar to be so low.”

He cited as examples two campaigns involving former Sen. Frank Lautenberg. When the Democrat first ran for the Senate in 1982, he faced then-Rep. Millicent Fenwick (R), who was 72, and inferred she was senile in asking, “What could be on Millicent Fenwick’s mind?” Six years later, defending his seat against Wall Street executive and former General Pete Dawkins, Lautenberg’s ads called Dawkins a carpetbagger, while Dawkins’ called Lautenberg “Swamp Dog.” That 1988 race was cited as one of the 25 dirtiest campaigns in a book by Kerwin Swint, professor of politics at Kennesaw State University in Atlanta.

“But I do think for the sheer disregard for truth in the face of known facts, the volume at which his ads are coming, I actually do think the Hugin prostitute ad may be the most vile we've seen in the state,” Zukin said. “We, as a citizenry, deserve so much better than our politics gives us. It's really a shame.”

Benjamin Dworkin, director of the Rowan Institute for Public Policy and Citizenship at Rowan University, said he has considered the 1989 Jim Florio vs. Jim Courter governor’s race — that featured perhaps the most memorable ads, in which each candidate’s nose grew à la Pinocchio — the state’s nastiest. But this year’s ranks right up there.

“When you state that your opponent was involved with underage prostitutes despite independent fact checks saying it’s not true, that’s pretty nasty, as well,” Dworkin said.

Critical of Hugin’s tenure at Celgene

That’s not to say Menendez has sat back and taken it gracefully. His campaign, and the independent PACs that are working against Hugin, have run ads critical of Hugin’s tenure at the helm of Summit-based Celgene, repeating that the company spent $280 million to settle a whistleblower lawsuit over improper marketing of two cancer drugs, among other claims.

More recently, Menendez and the Senate Majority PAC have spent big on ads tying Hugin to Trump, despite the challenger’s statements that he is “not a Trump Republican” and would be independent if elected to the Senate. Looking to capitalize on the president’s unpopularity in what is known as a blue state, the ads state that Hugin was Trump’s biggest New Jersey fundraiser and supported his Supreme Court nominees, Neil Gorsuch and the controversial Brett Kavanaugh. Menendez’s most recent ad ends, “To stop Trump, STOP HUGIN.”

But with the cost of advertising in the expensive New York and Philadelphia markets and Hugin continuing to pump money into his campaign at close to $1 million a day, Hugin has gotten and is likely to continue to get more air time than his opponent.

According to his federal financial disclosure form, Hugin was worth more than $76 million when he filed the required document last May. He also reported $48.4 million in total income for 2017 through March 31, 2018, with most of that from Celgene. He has not released his 2017 income tax returns, although he pledged to do so.

“We said we would release it once the IRS has approved it,” said Hugin spokesman Nick Iacovella, adding, “they always audit Bob's tax returns each year and I don't believe they have approved it yet.”

Hugin has spent $36 million

That prompted Menendez spokesman Steve Sandberg to liken Hugin, again, to Trump, who continues to refuse to release his tax returns due to what he says is Internal Revenue Service auditing. “Once again, Bob Hugin proves he's just a Trump Republican who will never have New Jersey's back,” Sandberg said.

Hugin has so far spent $36 million on his campaign, according to the most recent filings with the Federal Election Commission. This includes $8.5 million in additional funds since October 17. Less than 10 percent of the total $38.9 million he has raised comes from individual donors. He had spent $27.7 million through the October 17 pre-election filing deadline and had $2.6 million on hand at that time. Hugin has already spent $14 million beyond the $22 million of his own money he had originally said he was prepared to spend on the race.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics’ OpenSecrets website, Hugin has been the second biggest self-funder in the nation this year, behind only Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who has spent $51 million of his own money on his Senate bid. Ballotpedia noted that the record holder remains former New Jersey Sen. and Gov. Jon Corzine, who spent $60 million in 2000 — the equivalent of $83 million when adjusted for inflation — to win his Senate seat. Iacovella said he does not know what Hugin’s plans are for loaning his campaign any additional funds.

Menendez, meanwhile, had raised about $12 million and had spent more than $11 million through October 17. He had $1.8 million on hand at that time. Unlike Hugin, Menendez has amassed little wealth and lives off his $174,000 Senate salary so he has no deep pockets in which to find more money.

Lots of outside money

Dworkin said it’s noteworthy that Hugin has spent so much more than Menendez and, while he has made the race close, he “is still behind in every poll.”

The Democrat has gotten a bigger boost from the so-called independent expenditure committees than Hugin, but that still has not come close to narrowing the spending gap. Outside groups had spent about $11.2 million either against Hugin or for Menendez as of November 1, compared with $5.3 million spent against Menendez.

To further help bridge the gap, the state’s Democratic stars have been stumping for Menendez. Murphy spent last Sunday with him, ending with a rousing event at the Zeppelin Hall Beer Garden that was billed as a rally with the Jersey City Asian American community but attracted a diverse crowd of multiple races and ethnicities.

Phil Murphy
Gov. Phil Murphy campaigned with U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez last Sunday.

“I literally do not know where this state would be without Sen. Bob Menendez. He goes down to Washington, he laces his boxing gloves on every day to fight for us, to fight for our interests, to fight for our values,” said Murphy as he stood atop a picnic table next to Menendez and other Hudson County leaders. “This is a pass-fail test. We either get this guy re-elected or, oh my God, the alternative is unthinkable ... This is the most consequential election of our lifetime. Look at the state of our country.”

Booker: Menendez is a ‘street fighter’ from Hudson County

An event Monday commemorating the sixth anniversary of Superstorm Sandy turned into part-campaign rally, with assembled Democrats and others heaping praise on Menendez. Booker called him a “street fighter” from Hudson County.

“There has been no greater partner in my life, who has not just been a partner but a mentor, not just been a mentor but has been an inspiration,” Booker said of Menendez. “I wish every New Jersey resident knew what I knew, could see what I have seen, day in and day out. I have seen him work and sweat and fight. I have seen him cry. I have seen him love this state in a way that would inspire every New Jerseyan.”

Booker told the story of Menendez running into another Democratic senator in the cloakroom in Washington who was trying to cut a deal to take some Sandy money from New Jersey for a disaster in his own state.

Hugin has big get-out-the-vote plans

“I watched him go straight New Jersey on this guy,” Booker said of Menendez. “Bob ripped into him. There’s no way one penny would be taken away from the state of New Jersey. This is who Bob Menendez is. He lives and dies for this state. His heart breaks for this state... When I look to the future of this state, we need Bob Menendez.”

Hugin’s get-out-the-vote (GOTV) rallies begin today, with events planned in 11 counties — some reliably red and others where Republicans are competitive — in the four days leading up to Election Day.

Until now, many of Hugin’s events to which the press has been invited have been comparatively low-energy. On Tuesday, he toured the Patriot American Solutions manufacturing firm in Morris County and took some questions from a few business leaders following it. There, Hugin repeated his most recent campaign theme: New Jersey ranks last among the states in the percent of the tax money paid that it gets back from the federal government. Hugin said he had a couple of ideas on how to remedy that decades-long issue but did not provide specifics. He also urged people to vote, saying their ballots could make the difference in the race.

“This election is very close,” he said to workers assembled after the tour. “It’s going to be decided by who gets out to vote. I hope you will also talk to your friends.”

Dems look for big turnout in Hudson, Essex counties

Neither voter registration nor history are in Hugin’s favor. New Jerseyans have not elected a Republican to the U.S. Senate since 1972, a fact the state GOP is using on mailers trying to convince Republicans to back Hugin. And the state has close to 1 million more registered Democrats than Republicans, although unaffiliated voters are still the largest group.

Hugin’s GOTV effort began yesterday, with the campaign paying workers for a three-hour shift, with four shifts a day through Tuesday, as well as robocalls to invite people to the rallies to “stop corrupt career politician Bob Menendez,” as Hugin says in a recorded message.

Hugin also gained some goodwill with the Republican committees in all 21 counties, no doubt, when the campaign contributed the maximum $37,000 allowed under state law and paid for some expenses, for a total $788,000 spent, according to the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission. ELEC’s database also shows that Hugin personally gave $25,000 to the NJ Republican State Committee and $5,000 to the Union County GOP.

A search of ELEC’s database found no Menendez contributions to Democrats. The Menendez campaign’s GOTV effort also includes paid canvassers, working five-hour shifts.

Murphy said it is critical that Democrats turn out in large numbers in counties like Hudson and Essex, where they are strongest.

Murphy: ‘He’s still trying to raise every dime he can’

“The key is going to be that the turnout in these communities, and in particular in Hudson County, is going to make the difference,” Murphy said Sunday. “We’re going to be focused on getting the vote out … He’s still trying to raise every dime he can raise, given the wall of money that’s going after him, but at this point nine days out you are also laser focused on turnout.”

“It’s going to come down to turnout,” agreed Dworkin.

But Democrats have worries about that on two fronts: There are no hotly contested races to attract voters in their Hudson and Essex counties strongholds, where Menendez needs to win by a wide margin, and Democrats who are fired up in traditionally red districts where they are competitive for the House races may skip voting for the Senate race due to the negative ads.

“The Democrats have almost a million person advantage over the Republicans,” Dworkin noted, “but that advantage dissipates if the people don’t vote.”

There are also six independent candidates running in the race. They have raised little money and run no ads. They are: Libertarian Murray Sabrin, Green Party candidate Madelyn Hoffman, conservative Tricia Flanagan, Kevin Kimple, Hank Schroeder and Natalie Lynn Rivera.

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