In Democratic New Jersey, Senate Race Is Surprisingly Tight


For months, Republican Senate candidate Bob Hugin has assailed Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez in TV ads, calling the two-term incumbent corrupt because of now-dismissed federal corruption charges, whittling down the incumbent’s double-digit lead in the polls to single digits.

Now, with less than three months until voters go to the polls in Democratic-leaning New Jersey, where the Senate race is at the top of the ticket, Menendez is unleashing his own TV advertising fusillade, with two new 30-second spots this week criticizing the wealthy former pharmaceutical executive as greedy.

Both men, 64, grew up in Union City, the roughly square-mile city in Hudson County, just a short ride from New York across the Hudson River. It’s an old neighborhood brawl, but with national political implications.

“It’s frankly notable that I even have to pay attention to it,” said Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor at the Cook Political Report. New Jersey has about 900,000 more Democrats than Republicans and hasn’t elected a Republican to the Senate since 1972.

The contest is already a multimillion-dollar race for a Democrat-controlled seat in a tightly held Republican-led Senate, and Republican President Donald Trump, whose administration faces the special counsel’s probe, needs party support there to advance nominees and legislation.

A Quinnipiac University poll out last week showed Menendez with a six-point edge over Hugin, 43 percent to 37 percent. The poll surveyed 908 registered voters and had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.6 percentage points. That’s a tighter gap than a March survey that showed Menendez with a 13-point lead.

The attacks have been sharp and personal, and New Jersey residents have seen them on television and online for months, with the prospect for months more of negative ads.

One Hugin ad says Menendez thinks voters are stupid because he “thinks he can get away with corruption,” a reference to a federal corruption trial that ended in a mistrial before prosecutors dropped the charges in January.

Menendez was indicted on charges he accepted lavish gifts from longtime friend Dr. Salomon Melgen in return for help settling a Medicaid billing dispute. He maintained his innocence. He was also admonished by the Senate Ethics Committee over it in a strongly worded letter, though the full Senate stopped short of a censure vote.

Hugin said in an interview he would not have entered the race had it not been for Menendez’s corruption trial.

“This election is about New Jersey, and it’s Bob Hugin versus Bob Menendez, corrupt and ineffective, versus someone who has had a life of service and committed to outcomes and improving the quality of life of all New Jerseyans,” Hugin said.

Menendez, during an interview in Union City, pointed out that the jury didn’t “believe the government’s case on any given count.” Asked whether voters might question his judgment, he listed Senate accomplishments including getting federal aid after Superstorm Sandy and helping draft the Affordable Care Act.

While pivoting to attack Hugin, he also said he thinks voters will consider his entire career.

“I don’t think New Jerseyans are going to buy the judgment of Bob Hugin, who ultimately made a killing off the back of cancer patients,” Menendez said. “I think people are going to look at the totality of my decisions and my actions versus Bob Hugin’s decisions and actions, and I think that I’m happy to let the fate of the election rest on that.”

Menendez’s criticism centers on Hugin’s nearly two-decade career as head of Celgene, which markets a cancer drug called Revlimid that has proved a market and medical success. The cost of the drug has risen over the years, leading to Menendez’s attack. The senator also notes that under Hugin’s watch Celgene settled for $280 million last year over allegations it promoted cancer drugs that were not approved by the Food and Drug Administration. Celgene did not admit liability.

Hugin defended his tenure at Celgene, saying that the company had a generous aid program for patients in financial need and that the firm’s drugs had helped hundreds of thousands of people.

The president, whose approval rating in New Jersey is low, is another lightning rod in the contest so far.

Menendez said that if he wins, and if Democrats win the Senate, voters should expect more oversight over the Trump White House. If Democrats take control, he would expect to be Foreign Relations Committee chairman and would schedule hearings on Russia and North Korea.

Hugin, who has been a donor to Trump in 2016, as well as to former Gov. Chris Christie’s failed presidential bid, said he would be an independent representative. Asked what he would say to a skeptical voter, he pointed out White House meetings he attended with former President Barack Obama.

On policy, both support a woman’s right to have an abortion, and both have been critical of the Trump administration’s tariffs.

Hugin said he would likely vote in favor of Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, while Menendez is opposed.

It’s not only the two campaigns waging an advertising fight. Political action committees are joining the campaign, as well.

Patients for Affordable Drug Action raised more than $3 million and has been running ads attacking Hugin over the high cost of drugs. The group has spent about $1.5 million on TV ads in New Jersey, founder David Mitchell said.

Mitchell has incurable cancer and founded the super PAC after seeing drug prices spike. He also was the founder of the communications firm GMMB, which has been a top vendor to Democrats over the years. But he said the PAC is bipartisan and is supporting Republican Rep. David McKinley, of West Virginia.

Integrity NJ, a super PAC headed by Phil Cox, who led a super PAC for former Gov. Chris Christie’s Republican presidential campaign, has raised more than $2 million and is running an ad attacking Menendez over corruption.

Another PAC called Leadership Alliance New Jersey, run by Democratic strategist Julie Roginsky, said it spent “six figures” attacking Hugin over pharmaceutical prices.

Hugin has poured nearly $16 million of his own money into his candidacy and has about $8 million cash on hand, according to the Federal Election Commission. Menendez has $6.5 million on hand, according to the FEC.

Election Day is Nov. 6.