The New Jersey Senate seat held by Bob Menendez should be one of the safest for Democrats this year. But Menendez’s legal troubles and the deep pockets of his Republican opponent, Bob Hugin, introduce an element of uncertainty into the equation.
Control of the U.S. Senate could depend on the outcome.
Menendez survived a six-week federal corruption trial last fall after a jury deadlocked on bribery charges against him. However, the Senate Ethics Committee later determined he violated federal law by accepting and not reporting private jet flights and other gifts from his friend, Florida eye doctor Salomon Melgen.
Hugin supported and donated heavily to President Donald Trump’s 2016 election effort and headed a New Jersey-based pharmaceutical company that raised prices 20 percent in less than a year on a key cancer drug, parked money overseas and made it harder for companies to produce a generic version of its drugs.
Holding the New Jersey Senate seat is an imperative for Democrats, who need a net gain of two seats to take control of the chamber.
So far, neither national party has set foot in New Jersey to help with the race. That could change, however, if things tighten — amplifying what is already shaping up to be a nasty race, with both candidates likely to have enough money to spend on attack ads and plenty of ammunition to use for them.
Hugin and Menendez won their party primaries on Tuesday, though Menendez’s margin of victory over publisher Lisa McCormick, a political unknown, was closerthan anyone anticipated. Menendez led with 62 percent of the vote.
The Cook Political Report rates the November race as a “likely” Democratic victory.
Both Hugin and Menendez grew up in the same era in Union City, a densely packed Hudson County working class city within view of the New York City skyline, though they attended different high schools.
Menendez, 64, went to college in nearby Jersey City, then straight into politics. He was elected to the Union City school board at age 20 and gradually climbed the political ladder, becoming Union City’s mayor, a state legislator and member of the U.S. House of Representatives before being appointed to the Senate seat in 2006. He is currently the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee.
Hugin, 63, attended to Princeton University and, after graduating, served active duty in the Marines for six years. He then began working in finance, joining Celgene in 1999. He became the company’s COO in 2006 and its CEO in 2010. He retired from the company earlier this year.
“In November, voters will have a clear choice between bad Bob Menendez’s embarrassing and corrupt behavior and Bob Hugin, a self-made job creator and former Marine,” Hugin spokeswoman Megan Piwowar said in a statement. “The Senator cannot escape that he broke federal law and both his fellow Democrats and Republicans found that he needed to repay his ‘best friend’s’ gifts.”
Menendez was charged with doing official favors for Melgen, who was locked in a multi-million dollar Medicare payment dispute with the federal government. In exchange, prosecutors alleged, Melgen plied Menendez with private jet flights, stays at his villa at a luxury resort in the Dominican Republic, an expensive Paris hotel room and hundreds of thousands of dollars in political contributions.
The gifts were never disputed, but prosecutors failed to convince most jurors there was a quid pro quo between the men and the actions Menendez took on behalf of Melgen, which the feds said included taking up Melgen’s Medicare fraud case with the secretary of Health and Human Services.
The Senate Ethics Committee, in a harshly worded letter, admonished Menendez for the gifts he took from Melgen, saying he broke federal law by not reporting them, and demanded the senator pay back Melgen back. But the committee did not specify how much Menendez owed, and he has argued the $58,500 he reimbursed Melgen in 2013 for two private jet flights should suffice — even though prosecutors described many more flights during the trial.
Melgen, in a separate case, was convicted of Medicare fraud and was sentenced to 17 years in prison.
Hugin has his own baggage, which the Menendez campaign is looking to exploit.
“Greedy drug company CEO Bob Hugin is going to have to answer for his record of driving up prices for cancer patients while making millions for himself,” Menendez adviser Michael Soliman said in a statement. “Hugin is going to have to explain to the people of New Jersey why he denied access to affordable drugs in a way that even Donald Trump’s administration said was outrageous.”
Last summer, Summit-based Celgene — where Hugin at the time was executive chairman —paid $280 million to resolve fraud allegations over its promotion of two cancer drugs for uses that were not approved by the FDA.
The company also made news last year for “aggressively” raising prices on cancer drugs during Hugin’s leadership and was cited in a Bloomberg report for keeping more than three-quarters of its cash overseas. In addition, Celgene fought effortsto force it to turn over samples of one of its cancer drugs so that companies could manufacture cheaper generic versions.
Hugin’s support for Trump — who remains deeply unpopular in New Jersey — is already a big issue in the campaign, and Hugin won’t say whether he would ask the president to come to New Jersey to campaign for him.
Although Hugin told a POLITICO reporter not to call him a Trump supporter, his record on that front is clear. He was a Trump delegate at the 2016 Republican National Convention, donated to the Trump campaign and donated about $200,000 to organizations that worked to get the president elected.
“Bob Hugin will have to explain why he paid a $280 million settlement for defrauding taxpayers and ripping off cancer patients. And when Bob Hugin is done with all that, he is going to have to defend helping elect Donald Trump by giving hundreds of thousands of dollars to support the campaign, serving as a Finance Chair and convention delegate and then going to the White House to praise Trump,” Soliman said.
While both candidates have huge liabilities, Menendez starts off with an undeniable advantage: He’s a Democrat running in a blue state.
New Jersey has nearly 900,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans, and the gap has been growing steadily. While New Jersey voters have had no problem electing Republican governors, they haven’t shown the willingness to cross party lines when it comes to statewide federal elections. New Jersey has not elected a Republican to the U.S. Senate since 1972, and hasn’t voted for a Republican presidential candidate since 1988.
Add to that the grassroots activism Trump has spurred on New Jersey’s left — activism that has made traditionally Republican, suburban areas competitive — and any Republican is starting off with a huge deficit in New Jersey.
There have been three public polls on the race thus far.
A Quinnipiac University poll in March found Menendez leading Hugin by 17 points, while a Monmouth University poll in April showed the incumbent leading by 21 points. But a Fairleigh Dickinson University poll two weeks ago found Menendez with just a four-point advantage. That poll, however, did not factor in voters who leaned toward a candidate.
At the same time, Menendez’s approval rating is fairly weak. A Rutgers-Eagleton poll from mid-May showed 37 percent of voters disapproved of his job performance, while 33 percent approved.
Monmouth University pollster Patrick Murray said it’s too early to use polls to predict the race.
“We all know that these numbers don’t really need anything in terms of predictive value,” he said. “They just give you a general sense of where people are when they’re not paying attention things. But it’s still a very healthy margin to start out with.“
Former Republican Rep. Dick Zimmer, whose unsuccessful 1996 Senate race against former Sen. Robert Torricelli is considered one of the most negative campaigns in U.S. history, said he sees the potential for this campaign to get just as nasty — or be even worse.
That race was so nasty that shock jock Howard Stern endorsed both candidates after having them on his show and being impressed by their attacks on each other, according to the book “Mudslingers: The Twenty-Five Dirtiest Political Campaigns of All Time,” which describes the campaign as an “orgy of mudslinging.”
Whether the Menendez-Hugin race gets as bad will come down to whether the candidates view it as close, Zimmer said.
“All of us thought it was a close race, Torricelli and I and our campaigns. And that always increases the ferocity,” Zimmer said in a phone interview. “Some people remember it still as a close race, and I tell them ‘yes, it was close, until they counted the votes.“
In the end, Torricelli won by 10 percentage points.
While it remains to be seen whether the race will be competitive, both candidates will have the resources to saturate the airwaves with negative ads.
Hugin has already put $7.5 million of his own money into the race. Menendez, though not independently wealthy, has always been a prolific fundraiser. His fundraising slowed during his corruption trial, as he focused on raising money for his legal defense fund. But he currently has $5.6 million in the bank and, with the trial behind him and with the full support of the state and national Democratic Party, he’ll likely be able to raise money unfettered.