To the typical New Jersey resident, this year’s U.S. Senate race boils down to a choice between the crooked Bob or the greedy Bob.
With less than six weeks before the election, there has been virtually no discussion of any substantive issues in the race between Democratic incumbent Sen. Bob Menendez and Republican nominee and former pharmaceuticals executive Bob Hugin. Instead, the public is being treated to a nearly incessant loop of negative ads, some paid for by the candidates and others by third-party groups highly critical of one Bob or the other.
Neither candidate has given people much reason to vote for him, rather than against his opponent, thus far. If the campaign continues in this vein, that might not happen until October 24, when they are scheduled to debate on NJTV. It’s the only debate to which they have agreed so far.
The stakes may be higher than usual this year, given the slim margin between the parties in the Senate. Republicans are trying to keep or expand their bare majority of 51 seats, while Democrats are fighting to defend the 26 seats they currently hold that are on this year’s ballot and pick up two more to take the majority.
Background of the Bobs
As unlikely as it may seem, the race not only pits two men named Bob, but also both hail from Union City. Menendez, 64, is the son of Cuban immigrants and a lawyer who worked his way up the Hudson County political ladder to the State House, House of Representatives, and U.S. Senate a dozen years ago. Hugin, 63, served in the U.S. Marine Corps, got a master’s in business administration degree, joined investment banking firm JPMorgan Chase, and went on to spend 19 years at the Celgene pharmaceuticals company, eventually becoming its CEO before retiring in 2016.
While Hugin’s campaign boasts of his tenure at the company, his legacy is providing ammunition for his opponent. Celgene paid $280 million to settle a lawsuit filed by a whistleblower that contended the firm improperly marketed two drugs to treat a host of cancers without getting Federal Drug Administration approval. Additionally, three drug companies have sued Celgene for refusing to supply them with samples of the two cancer drugs so they could manufacture cheaper generic versions. The company has been criticized for roughly doubling over seven years the price of Revlimid, one of Celgene’s drugs to treat multiple myeloma, to about $20,000 for a supply of 28 pills.
It is this record that Menendez has based much of his campaign on. No one would have thought the incumbent would have to be waging such an aggressive defense of his seat, given New Jersey is a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans by nearly 920,000 registered voters and where voters have not elected a Republican to the Senate in 46 years. But Menendez is leading by just six points in the most recent poll last month, and his seat is rated as only “leaning Democratic” by the Real Clear Politics website.
Charges of corruption
The incumbent’s reputation has been damaged by corruption charges brought against him for taking gifts and campaign contributions in exchange for trying to use his influence to help a friend. Menendez was indicted, but his trial ended in a hung jury, and earlier this year the U.S. Justice Department dropped the charges against him. Still, the Senate Committee on Ethics admonished Menendez and ordered him to repay at least some of the improper gifts.
Because Hugin, who reported his net worth to be at least $84 million, spent some $16 million of his own money on the campaign through June 30, the Menendez campaign let weeks of negative ads go unanswered, which further hurt the incumbent’s poll numbers.
At their convention in Atlantic City last week, the party was pushing as hard for Menendez’s re-election as for the challengers in the five congressional districts that are currently red. In a video introduction to the convention, Gov. Phil Murphy declared, “I look at Bob Menendez as nobody who fights harder for New Jersey.” New Jersey’s junior Sen. Cory Booker, who has been campaigning for Menendez, said of him, “Anybody who knows my relationship with Bob knows that he’s been one of the best partners I could ever imagine having in the Senate.”
Menendez’s race to lose
The pundits are still saying the race is Menendez’s to lose.
Ben Dworkin, director of the Institute for Public Policy and Citizenship at Rowan University, said Hugin’s deep pockets allowed him “to define Menendez with no effective response” for months but that has changed.
“What is perhaps most surprising is that despite the million-dollar onslaught, Menendez, at least in the public polls, is still ahead by a few points,” Dworkin said. “Importantly, as Menendez becomes more aggressive, seeking to starkly define this race on his terms, Democrats, especially in the suburbs, are likely to feel better about their candidate. No partisan enjoys seeing their guy beat up over and over with no response. This is a strong Democratic state in what will be a strong Democratic year and Menendez is a strong Democrat. That combination should pull him across the finish line.”
Still, a poll of the state’s southernmost congressional district, the 2nd, had Hugin 10 points ahead of Menendez even as Democrat Jeff Van Drew, a state senator, is leading his GOP opponent Seth Grossman by 23 points. This has been a traditionally red district that backed Donald Trump for the presidency two years ago. But Menendez won it the last time he was on the ballot in 2012.
“This looks like bad news for Senator Menendez and good news for Bob Hugin, but keep in mind that the 2nd District is more rural and more moderate than most of New Jersey,” said Michael W. Klein, interim executive director of the Hughes Center.
Hugin’s campaign jumped on the results, with press secretary Nick Iacovella saying, “Voters are sick and tired of corrupt, career politician Bob Menendez disgracing and embarrassing New Jersey.”
Menendez campaign spokesman Steve Sandberg downplayed that poll, noting that it has been a red district for decades and Van Drew already represents a portion of it in the state Legislature and is well-known and well-liked there. Candidates, including Hillary Clinton in 2016, can lose the 2nd and still win the state by double digits. Sandberg said the campaign’s internal polling shows them to be in “a very strong position” to win re-election.
Brigid Harrison, a professor of political science and law at Montclair State University, agreed.
“I think that trailing in the second is no surprise and that other areas will compensate for these numbers,” she said.
Hugin begs to differ
Hugin’s camp naturally differs in its view of who will take the seat.
“We are in a strong position with six weeks to go,” Iacovella said. “Public polling shows our race is a dead heat because Democrats, Republicans, and independents know that Marine veteran and job creator Bob Hugin is the best Bob in this race … Even Democrats agree Bob Menendez doesn’t deserve to be re-elected and is hurting their credibility with voters, which is why a growing number of Democrats have already endorsed Bob Hugin’s campaign for U.S. Senate.”
Hugin has been endorsed by five local Democratic officials and former candidates from around the state.
Sandberg said Menendez has a proven record of success working for New Jersey, from getting money from the federal government to rebuild after superstorm Sandy to co-authoring the law expanding federally qualified health centers to securing passage of autism research legislation and funding.
“Time and again he has fought for New Jersey,” Sandberg said. “He is traveling around the state talking about his record.” Iacovella noted Hugin has run ads outlining his background, touting his service as a former Marine and stressing he is independent and “will stand up strongly and oppose any position from anyone that is not in the best interest of New Jersey.”
Still, most of what people are seeing in ads on television and on internet sites are the negative ads. Hugin’sthat Menendez was “indicted by Obama’s Justice Department.” One of the ads from the notes that “Hugin’s company was sued for putting cancer patients in danger by hiding information about potentially fatal side effects.”
Issue-oriented attack ads
Adding to the negativity are the spots being run by outside groups, so-called issue-oriented organizations, attacking one candidate or the other. So far Menendez is getting the bigger boost, with two groups — Leadership Alliance and Patients for Affordable Drugs Action — spending more than $4 million to date on ads critical of Hugin. Integrity New Jersey, meanwhile, has spent $2.5 million on anti-Menendez ads.
There have been other charges. Menendez has criticized Hugin for past efforts seen as anti-gay and anti-women: As a student at Princeton University, Hugin opposed efforts to include sexual orientation in the university’s nondiscrimination policy and as president of the alumni board of one of Princeton’s exclusive all-male eating clubs Hugin fought in court one woman’s attempt to make the club co-ed.
But Hugin has also criticized Menendez for not bringing enough federal funds back to New Jersey, with the state ranked last in the percentage of federal tax dollars paid that come back into the state — a ranking that the state has held for many years.
The Menendez campaign has also highlighted Hugin’s support of President Donald Trump and charges he supports Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, despite multiple allegations of sexual misconduct against him. The Hugin campaign disputes this, saying the candidate now says the allegations need to be fully investigated.
Battling press releases
More recently, the campaigns have been hurling allegations via press release over other issues. Hugin charged Menendez was responsible for getting Hugin kicked out of an upcoming Dominican Parade of Hudson County, a charge Sandberg denies. And the Menendez campaign complained that Hugin’s driver, a former New Jersey State Police lieutenant, shoved a Menendez staffer at a Hugin event.
Earlier this week, Hugin held a roundtable discussion with doctors, nurses, and others about his plans for health care reform, which include keeping parts of the Affordable Care Act and limiting prescription co-payments and out-of-pocket spending, although he did not say how he would pay for his plan. Menendez is campaigning in the state when he can but is still also spending time in Washington; the Senate has yet to take its traditional fall recess around election time.
There will be six other candidates on the ballot: Madelyn Hoffman of Flanders representing the Green Party, Libertarian Murray Sabrin of Fort Lee, and independents Tricia Flanagan of Lawrenceville, Kevin Kimple of Edison, Natalie Lynn Rivera of Merchantville, and Hank Schroeder of Sea Girt. While none has enough money to run ads, it’s possible they will take votes away from Democrats and Republicans disenchanted with the negative campaign.
What the race may boil down to is which campaign is better at energizing voters and getting them to the polls.
“Nothing is a given,” Dworkin said. Menendez “needs to turn out his party’s base and avoid having Hugin peel away some of that support.”
Tying Hugin to Trump could be the key to a Menendez win, Dworkin said. And that’s not hard to do, given Hugin donated to Trump’s campaign, was a Trump delegate to the 2016 Republican National Convention, and was involved with his transition team.
“Given the president’s unpopularity in New Jersey, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Menendez arguing in these last few weeks that the state can’t afford to give another vote in the Senate to Trump,” he said. “This is the kind of message that he is likely to use to motivate these (Democratic) voters.”
NJ Spotlight, an independent online news service on issues critical to New Jersey, makes its in-depth reporting available to WHYY.