Menendez in Jeopardy as Senate Challenger Makes Push

Menendez in Jeopardy as Senate Challenger Makes Push
Ed Murray/The Star-Ledger via AP
Menendez in Jeopardy as Senate Challenger Makes Push
Ed Murray/The Star-Ledger via AP
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The New Jersey Senate race was supposed to be a done deal with incumbent Bob Menendez easily cruising to re-election. It’s rated solid or likely to remain Democratic by most election watchers, and the Democrats were certainly putting it in their win column as they mapped out plans to retake the Senate.

But someone forgot to tell New Jersey voters that this race was uncompetitive. The polls show it to be tight -- Menendez simply has not shaken Republican challenger Bob Hugin in a state Hillary Clinton carried by 14 points over Donald Trump two years ago.

Part of the reason seems to be that, despite the federal corruption case against him ending in a mistrial, Menendez has not escaped the taint that came with his 2015 trial. Another is that Hugin, the wealthy former CEO of a biopharmaceutical company, had already spent nearly $16 million in the race. Throw into this mix a state with the worst affordability index in the country and an expected increase in the gasoline tax on Oct. 1 -- on top of significant increases in state taxes enacted this spring. It seems a combustible mix in which an attractive and well-funded outsider with a sterling resume can give the political establishment heartburn.

Meanwhile, Menendez has a lot of baggage to defend. In 2015, he was indicted on federal corruption charges pursued by his fellow Democrats -- the first U.S. senator to be indicted by the administration of his own party in 30 years. He was accused of doing favors for Florida eye doctor Salomon Melgen, who is now serving 17 years in prison for Medicare fraud. Prosecutors presented evidence of 19 free private plane trips and campaign donations, which they asserted came in exchange for political favors. According to prosecutors, one such trip to the Dominican Republic supposedly involved underage prostitutes. Menendez strongly denied those allegations, but in the  #MeToo era, any lingering suspicion is unhelpful for a politician. And though he was not found guilty by the jury, Menendez was rebuked by the Senate Ethics Committee.

While he may have survived his legal battles, New Jersey voters have apparently not forgotten. In a June primary, an unknown Democratic opponent who raised less than $5,000 got 38 percent of the vote against Menendez. That challenger, Lisa McCormick, didn’t have enough money to run ads reminding the electorate of Menendez’s legal troubles. But Bob Hugin did. Hugin’s campaign began running hard-hitting television spots against the incumbent in February. Menendez was pounded by ads titled “Guilty,” “Screwed” and “Dead Last.” By July, Menendez was leading Hugin by two percentage points, and in an August poll he was up by only six.

The damage had been done. In an August Quinnipiac poll, only 29 percent of the voters had a favorable opinion of Menendez and 49 percent of the voters believed he was involved with serious wrongdoing, compared to 16 percent who did not. While Menendez only spent $800,000 through June, he’s now playing catch-up and recently started both positive and negative television ads.

The economic climate in New Jersey is not necessarily conducive to incumbents. Since 2015, the Tax Foundation has rated New Jersey as having the worst tax climate for business and the highest property taxes in the country. For some homeowners in the state, it’s possible to pay 15 percent of their income toward property taxes. This spring, Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy raised corporate and personal income taxes amid the already high tax environment. “The affordability crisis in our state continues to get worse,” said Hugin. “We’re losing millennials at the highest rate in the nation and Trenton politicians just made things worse by raising taxes another $1.6 billion.”

Friday morning, in response to Murphy offering praise to Menendez, Hugin released a statement saying, “If Bob Menendez were a Republican, and had been indicted for bribery and found to have violated federal law by the bipartisan Senate Ethics Committee, would Governor Murphy be singing the same tune? Of course not.”

Though Hugin allowed that the governor is “by all accounts … a good man,” he added that “[h]is loyalty to his party over his principles when it comes to Senator Menendez is embarrassing. Sadly, it’s a testament to how toxic and divided our politics are today.”

As the polls have started to look positive for the challenger, he’s been able to capitalize on this environment by getting endorsements from four local Democratic officials. In 2015, the New Jersey Star-Ledger, the largest paper in the state, called for Menendez to resign amid the corruption charges, even though the paper had endorsed him in the past. “Menendez is hurting other down-ballot candidates, especially in competitive congressional races,” said Hugin’s spokesman, Nick Iacovella.

With Donald Trump’s approval rating in the mid-30s in New Jersey, Menendez has made criticizing the president his top priority and accuses Hugin of being a Trump Republican. In a state where Democrats out-register Republicans, Menendez is hoping that an anti-Trump sentiment and a large Democratic turnout will still lead him to victory. Hugin, however, is hardly a Trump clone. A Princeton grad who earned a master’s degree in business at the University of Virginia, he has supported the president’s tax cuts and most economic policies. But he’s also described himself as pro-choice on abortion, favors a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, and has opposed the administration’s policy of separating families at the border.  

In a session with the media in late spring, Hugin complained that the administration’s plans to cut Hurricane Sandy relief were “ridiculous.”

“I think my philosophy is very clear: New Jersey first,” he said that day. “I support President Trump in every way when he does something that’s good for New Jersey. And I’ll fight anybody who’s not doing good things for New Jersey.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article erroneously stated the Menendez was acquitted of federal corruption charges. In fact, his trial resulted in a hung jury and he was not retried.

Adele Malpass is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She was formerly chairwoman of the Manhattan Republican Party and money politics reporter for CNBC.

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