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In Deeply Blue New Jersey, an Unexpected Battle for Senate

Sen. Robert Menendez’s corruption trial had barely ended at the federal courthouse in Newark, New Jersey, but his team was already feverishly working the phones. Within 24 hours, nearly every major Democratic public official in New Jersey — from the newly elected governor to influential state legislators to powerful county chairs — had pledged their endorsement.

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In Deeply Blue New Jersey, an Unexpected Battle for Senate
Nick Corasaniti
, New York Times

Sen. Robert Menendez’s corruption trial had barely ended at the federal courthouse in Newark, New Jersey, but his team was already feverishly working the phones. Within 24 hours, nearly every major Democratic public official in New Jersey — from the newly elected governor to influential state legislators to powerful county chairs — had pledged their endorsement.

Menendez’s ability to quickly unite fellow Democrats behind him so soon after his trial concluded in a hung jury and even before prosecutors dropped the case seemed to assure a relatively smooth glide to re-election in an increasingly blue state, which had just elected a Democratic governor by 13 points.

But six months later, the road has become unexpectedly bumpy.

Facing a deep-pocketed Republican challenger, a blitz of negative ads and lingering concerns over a lackluster performance in an uncontested primary, Menendez’s race has started to concern some Democrats. After weathering a criminal indictment and a harsh ethics rebuke from his Senate peers, Menendez may find himself in a tough enough re-election fight that will force the party to devote money and energy needed in other races critical to the party’s quest to retake Congress.

In theory, Menendez, 64, should win easily: Registered Democratic voters outnumber Republicans by nearly 900,000, President Donald Trump remains deeply unpopular, contested congressional races are energizing Democrats and he has the backing of a Democratic machine that still has enough clout to deliver victory.

But despite the advantages, Menendez has shown signs of weakened support. In the primary, Lisa McCormick, a small-business owner and unknown candidate with virtually no money managed to win nearly 40 percent of the vote. A significant number of voters view Menendez unfavorably, according to recent polls. Real Clear Politics, a nonpartisan polling aggregate site, downgraded Menendez’s chances from “likely Democrat” to “leans Democrat.”

His Republican opponent, Bob Hugin, 64, a wealthy former pharmaceutical executive, has already spent $15 million of his own money on the race, largely on negative attack ads. New Jersey residents tuning into the World Cup were constantly reminded of Menendez’s federal corruption trial. A recently formed separate super PAC called Integrity NJ that focuses on defeating Menendez has already raised over $2 million.

“Look, this isn’t a race that should be on our radar at all,” said Jennifer E. Duffy, a senior editor at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. “But why do we pay attention? One, that primary result,'’ referring to McCormick’s vote count, adding that “you can’t take that lightly. And then you’ve got a Republican who’s going to put in — the number moves around a lot — but anywhere from $25 to $50 million.”

Menendez expressed confidence in his prospects in a recent interview, pointing out that he has yet to launch his own advertising campaign to highlight the differences between himself and Hugin, particularly his record in the pharmaceutical industry — Hugin’s former company, Celgene, recently settled a $280 million lawsuit claiming that it marketed cancer drugs for unapproved uses.

“I believe when we make that contrast and we talk about our successes, that we’re going to have a great victory,” he said. “So that’s how we’re going to change the dynamics of the race.”

Menendez also cited his legislative record — from fighting for victims of Hurricane Sandy to protecting federal programs for autism — and said that the more time he spends on the campaign trail, the more of a chance he has to remind voters of his achievements in Washington instead of his 11-week trial in Newark. His campaign messaging has so far focused on protecting New Jersey from Trump administration policies, particularly on environmental issues, education, immigration and health care.

“What I believe is that the seeds that I have sown over nearly a lifetime, but certainly in the last six years, all of these things that I have mentioned and many more, we don’t just do it at election time, we do it all the time,” said Menendez, who has been in the political arena since running for a local school board at age 20, was elected to Congress in 1992 and appointed to the Senate in 2005.

Democratic Party leaders assumed Republicans would target Menendez given the ethical cloud that has lingered over him, but they believe Menendez will prevail despite Hugin’s aggressive and highly visible campaign.

“Bob Menendez will have the full weight of the state party and outside apparatus living and breathing his race every day,” said Elizabeth Gilbert, executive director of the New Jersey Democratic State Committee. “And Democrats are not coming out and voting for Bob Hugin. It is no secret the results of the Democratic primary were a surprise, but there is a major difference between that and the November election. Democrats are solidly behind Senator Menendez, as are many independents.'’

There has been no recent polling on the race, so it is hard to tell whether Hugin is gaining any traction among voters. In addition to targeting Menendez, Hugin’s campaign has focused on addressing the many factors contributing to the high cost of living in New Jersey.

“Kathy and I made the decision to enter this race because we felt it was morally offensive for Bob Menendez to run virtually unopposed and continue to embarrass the people of New Jersey for another six years,” Hugin said in a statement referring to his wife. “Our message is resonating across party lines and with people from all walks of life who want a senator that puts New Jersey first.'’

Whatever Hugin’s chances, just the presence of a free-spending Republican is enough to give headaches to the Democratic Party, which needs every dollar to defend its 10 Senate incumbents facing re-election in states Trump won.

“The party does not want to have to spend money here,” Duffy said. “It’s too expensive, and they have bigger expensive problems.”

So far, national Democratic Party groups have not contributed to Menendez’s efforts, though that may change. Menendez said he might get help from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which he once led. The New Jersey Democratic State Committee is raising funds for Menendez, a move that underscores that the race is becoming more contested than expected. Menendez is also starting to get support from outside groups. Patients for Affordable Drugs Action, a super PAC run by David Mitchell, a cancer survivor and communications consultant, is putting $1.5 million into a new ad criticizing Hugin’s former company, Celgene, for raising the price of cancer drugs.

Donald Scarinci, a lawyer and close friend of Menendez, is setting up another super PAC called Leadership Alliance.

“Bob Hugin will not have control of the airwaves for much longer,” Scarinci said.

On the Republican side, Integrity NJ, which was formed in February by allies of former Gov. Chris Christie, is helping Hugin by broadcasting television commercials and deploying an online campaign criticizing Menendez.

Some of Menendez’s supporters have been frustrated by his relative silence and say he needs to start counterattacking Hugin.

“I think we would be crazy if we weren’t concerned, and he should be, too,” said Nicola Sterling, 29, who lives in Newark and attended a Planned Parenthood event that featured Menendez and Sen. Cory Booker. “We want to make sure that any senator that is there representing New Jersey, they understand and they know what we want.”

In New Jersey, the top of the ticket typically drives turnout and presidential candidates, with senators and governors on the ballot three out of every four years. But this year, the heightened interest in the state’s Republican-held congressional seats where Democratic candidates have attracted national attention could help Menendez by driving more Democratic voters eager to register their distaste for Trump and the rest of the Republican Party to the polls.

“Menendez is probably going to benefit from the intensely competitive House races we have this year, which we haven’t had in a long time,'’ said John Weingart, associate director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers. Menendez also counts one of the rising stars in the Democratic Party as his close friend: Booker, who despite spending time traveling and planting the seeds for what many believe will be a presidential run in two years, is also invested in ensuring Menendez is re-elected.

“This is my indispensable partner in getting things done, so I’m going to go to the mat for him,” Booker said after an event in Newark. “I don’t care how many millions of dollars his opponent spends.”

On a recent weekday, Menendez’s campaign invited 16 women to discuss issues at a diner in North Bergen.

Menendez’s first question was a boilerplate campaign question: “What keeps you up at night?”

But the first woman to respond, after listing a litany of perceived transgressions by the Trump administration, added a note of nervous urgency.

“This is a we-must-keep-you-in,” said Pamela T. Miller, a consultant. “We must make sure that the numbers go in the right way, and you are part of that equation.”

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