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Neck and Neck in the Senate: Menendez v. Hugin

November 5, 2018 35 2 No Comments

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The race for the New Jersey U.S. Senate seat held by incumbent Rob Menendez (D-NJ) and challenged by former pharmaceutical executive Bob Hugin is one of the most competitive elections in the nation, with the candidates running neck and neck in a state where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by 900,000. Despite that edge in numbers, the Democrats know they’ve got problems when the state’s largest newspaper endorses their candidate with the headline pronouncement “Choke it down, vote for Menendez.”

The New Jersey Star-Ledger editorial board’s reluctant endorsement was born of discomfort over the sitting senator’s “miracle” escape from being found guilty of federal corruption charges last year. Although that federal trial ended in mistrial, the Senate Ethics Committee unanimously determined that the senator was pretty much guilty as charged. While these factors make the senator an “awful” candidate, the editorial board suggests that New Jersey voters should “choke down their reluctance and vote for Menendez.

The editorial board’s reasoning is primarily based on their belief that a vote for Hugin represents a vote for Trump, making a vote for the corrupt Menendez the lesser of two evils. That said, the board also believes that Hugin is a “slippery” character, and cited Hugin’s role as CEO of Celgene as black marks on the candidates’ ethics. In particular, the fact that he earned up to $200 million at the firm while it mounted a “vigorous fight to keep cheaper generic [drugs] of the market.” And calling into question a $280 million lawsuit settlement of a case that alleged the firm mislead doctors about potential side effects and tried to defraud Medicare.

Last, the editorial board points to Hugin’s lack of public policy experience, and says that the candidate refuses to take a firm stance on any of the major political issues of the day. But the “bigger concern,” concludes the board, is the candidate’s support for Trump.

In response to this assessment, and efforts by Menendez and other Democratic supporters, to distinctly link Hugin to Trump, the candidate has recently been making more of an effort to distinguish himself as independent of Trump. Among issues he says he diverges from Trump are abortion rights, gay marriage, cuts to Medicare, Trump tax cuts, and any changes to birthright citizenship.

Ignoring the alleged ethical concerns raised by the Star-Ledger, Hugin has a distinguished career at Celgene, where he helped transform the modest-sized, struggling biotech firm into one of New Jersey’s largest private private-sector employers, and an innovative world leader in the fight against cancer and chronic diseases. He also distinguished himself as an active duty and reserve Marine Corps infantry officer from 1976 to 1990.

Absent the taint of corruption, Menendez has a solid reputation as an effective legislator, with service in New Jersey’s General Assembly, the U.S. House of Representatives, and his two terms (and one year via appointment) in the Senate. He helped draft Obamacare and has helped lead Democratic opposition to Republican efforts to weaken it. He has long been a key proponent of sensible immigration policy that includes a path to citizenship for law-abiding illegal aliens, along with stronger border protections. He is also known for his work on environmental issues, leading in efforts to clean up toxic sites, reduce carbon emissions, and in making polluters pay for their transgressions.

According to The New York Times, recent Democratic internal polling has the race at a virtual tie with Menendez leading by a within-the-margin-of-error two points. In light of these numbers, and Hugin outspending Menendez by a margin of seven to one, the Democratic Party started infusing the incumbent’s campaign with cash in mid-October, with the Senate Majority PAC recently spending $7 million for TV air time. The state’s other noteworthy Democrats—Sen. Cory Booker and Gov. Philip D. Murphy—have also hit the campaign trail to rally support for the embattled incumbent.

The election will undoubtedly remain a toss-up until the late hours of Nov. 6, or perhaps into the next day or so after, while votes are tabulated. Until then New Jersey voters will be bombarded with messages along the lines of “hold your nose and vote.” Those happy with Pres. Trump’s performance will naturally vote for Hugin. Everyone else is going to have to consider exactly what they are willing to choke down.

The New York Times—Democrats in an All-Hands-on-Deck Scramble to Save Menendez in New Jersey

New Jersey Star-Ledger—Choke it down, and vote for Menendez

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