It wasn’t supposed to be like this for Sen. Bob Menendez.
Though the New Jersey Democrat is still favored to defeat Republican Bob Hugin in November, Menendez is being forced to fight to keep his seat. Hugin’s relentless negative ad campaign and deep pockets, combined with Menendez’s unpopularity among New Jersey voters, are making the race closer than most anticipated.
Now, national Democrats are putting resources into a state that normally would not be in play.
“It’s a single-digit race. I think, nationally, the Democrats are trying to bail him out. I think people know that Menendez is corrupt. They want change,” said Doug Steinhardt, chairman of the New Jersey Republican State Committee. “They see Bob Hugin as a sensible alternative, and he’s making a good case for himself.”
A spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee said the group has made a “six-figure” coordinated ad buy with the campaign. The North Jersey Record reported in late August the committee had spent nearly $450,000 on cable television ads to help Menendez. The DSSC didn’t do any coordinated spending with the Menendez campaign in 2012, according to Federal Election Commission records.
The national effort comes comes as Democrats are already working against a map in which several of their incumbents are vulnerable, including Florida’s Bill Nelson, North Dakota’s Heidi Heitkamp and Missouri’s Claire McCaskill.
Still, party officials remain confident Menendez will prevail.
“While former pharma CEO Bob Hugin has already spent over $11 million on TV and is using the fortune he made raising the costs of prescription drugs for cancer patients to try to buy the Senate seat, the Menendez campaign smartly held their resources until their ads would have maximum impact in the closing weeks of the election,” DSCC spokesman David Bergstein said in a email.
Some Democrats were nervous last fall when Menendez, immediately after his six-week federal corruption trial ended with a hung jury, made it clear he had no plans to retire from the seat he’s held since 2006. Still, with President Donald Trump deeply unpopular in New Jersey and Republicans not having much of a candidate bench, most in the party assumed Menendez was a shoo-in for reelection. After all, New Jersey hasn’t elected a Republican to the Senate in nearly a half-century.
What party officials didn’t count on was the emergence of Hugin, who made tens of millions of dollars a year as CEO of New Jersey pharmaceutical company Celgene. As of July, Hugin had pumped $15.5 million of his own money into the race, and by all appearances is ready to spend more.
Hugin began hitting the airwaves months ago with ads zeroing in on Menendez’s trial, portraying the senator as corrupt. Though Menendez avoided conviction, the Senate ethics committee admonished him, saying he broke federal law by accepting and not initially reporting gifts from his friend and co-defendant Salomon Melgen. That has provided even more fodder for Hugin.
Only now is Menendez is fighting back, running ads that paint Hugin as a robber baron who profited from gouging and endangering patients when he headed Celgene.
During Hugin’s tenure, the ads say, Celgene repeatedly raised the price of a key cancer drug. The company also settled for $280 million a Justice Department fraud lawsuit that it marketed two cancer drugs for unapproved treatments. Hugin left Celgene shortly before announcing his run for Senate.
Hugin’s more recent ads have defended his role at Celgene and noted that Menendez has received about $1 million since 2006 from pharmaceutical companies. (Hugin doesn’t note that he and his company were among those donors.)
Menendez’s commercials have yet to highlight — but almost certainly will — Hugin’s support in 2016 for Trump, whose approval rating in New Jersey in a recent Quinnipiac University poll was 33 percent — below Menendez’s 40 percent approval rating.
The latest Quinnipiac poll, released in late August, showed Menendez with just a six-point lead over Hugin, 43 percent to 37 percent, down from a 17-point lead he held in a similar poll conducted in March.
Republicans in statewide New Jersey polls tend to fare better in the dead of summer than when the campaign ramps up in the fall; the August poll put Hugin’s support at about the same level as where recent GOP Senate candidates were at a similar point in the campaign.
Still, there were troubling numbers for Menendez in the latest poll.
His approval rating was a net negative seven points, but his favorability rating was far worse — just 29 percent favorable to 47 percent unfavorable. And by a 49 percent to 16 percent margin, voters felt Menendez was involved in “serious wrongdoing.”
Hugin, meanwhile, remains largely unknown, with 54 percent of voters saying they didn’t know enough about him to form an opinion.
Menendez spokesman Steve Sandberg said in a statement that while a self-funded candidate like Hugin, with virtually unlimited resources and riches, presents “challenges, we like our position right now in this race.“
“The support for Bob Menendez is as wide as it is deep, and the enthusiasm among Democrats heading into a midterm has never been higher," Sandberg said.
Hugin spokesman Nick Iacovella said in a statement that the Republican is in a strong position because “Bob Hugin is the best Bob in this race and New Jersey voters — Democrats, Independents, and Republicans — know it’s time for change.
While Menendez has publicly expressed confidence, his own party’s base sent him a warning shot in New Jersey’s June primary, when his unfunded and virtually unknown Democratic challenger, Lisa McCormick, got 38 percent of the vote and won several rural counties.
On the plus side, Democrats point out, Menendez got almost 100,000 more votes than Hugin. Even taking into account Democrats’ 900,000 voter registration advantage in New Jersey, their 19.6 percent turnout in the primary was higher than the Republicans’ 17.6 percent.
Jay Lassiter, a liberal activist and columnist, said he and many others aren’t happy with Menendez.
"There are people like me just saying ‘how the hell could we let this happen. How can we let him get another crack at this given that he was never close to being exonerated given the millions and millions of dollars he spent?’" Lassiter said.
But, Lassiter said, he’ll probably vote for Menendez — a sentiment he’s heard from many others who share his political beliefs.
“I’ll lament him [Menendez] … on Facebook,” Lassiter said, “and I’ll have a thousand people reminding me that he’s the only person separating us from a pro-Trump guy in New Jersey, which is compelling.”