National News

Trump Looms Over Debate by Senate Candidates in New Jersey

Posted October 25, 2018 12:08 a.m. EDT

Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., and his Republican challenger, Bob Hugin, squared off in a debate Wednesday night that simmered with an undercurrent of contempt but rarely erupted into the mudslinging that has defined the race as the candidates repeatedly focused their disagreements on President Donald Trump’s record.

The only scheduled debate between the men took place as the contest for Menendez’s seat was becoming unexpectedly close. Menendez is seeking re-election in a blue state where Trump is unpopular, during a year when Democratic energy is surging.

But dogged by a federal corruption trial last year that ended in a hung jury, Menendez has maintained slim leads in most polls and has come under a wave of negative attacks from Hugin. A poll from Rutgers University released Wednesday found Menendez leading by 5 points.

Throughout the hourlong debate in Newark, hosted by NJTV, the candidates debated the federal tax law, immigration, race relations and corruption.

The president as a liability

With a motivated Democratic base in New Jersey threatening to claim traditionally Republican congressional districts, Menendez has sought in the closing weeks of the campaign to tether Hugin to the president, hoping voters will make the race a proxy referendum on Trump.

Throughout the debate, a prevailing line of attack for Menendez was to paint Hugin as a rubber stamp for Trump on a variety of issues, including the federal tax law, the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court and health care.

“You can’t in 60 minutes change what you’ve been for 60 years,” Menendez said.

But Hugin did try to distance himself from the president. “No, I’m not a Trump Republican, I’m an independent Republican,” he said. At one point he criticized Trump as being “divisive on the issue of race.”

For his part, Menendez said several times that Hugin had donated to Trump’s presidential campaign and had been chairman of his campaign in New Jersey.

A recent Rutgers poll found that Trump had a 56 percent unfavorability rating among likely voters.

A sore point in the state: taxes

It may be a signature accomplishment of Trump’s tenure, but the tax bill passed last year has not been well received in New Jersey, largely because of a limit placed on state and local tax deductions, known as SALT. And there are few topics that New Jersey residents complain about more than taxes.

Menendez, who voted against the bill and was a vocal critic, accused Hugin of essentially supporting the tax law and scoffed at his opponent’s argument that he opposed the SALT provision.

“There are some good parts of the tax reform bill,” Hugin said. “But the SALT means that I could have never voted for that bill.”

When pressed by a moderator about whether he supported other elements of the tax bill, Hugin largely demurred, although he said he believed that some of the corporate tax cuts made the United States more competitive with other countries.

Menendez tried to score points by highlighting Hugin’s personal wealth. “He likes it because he got a big tax cut as a result of it,” Menendez said.

Comparing health care records

A Monmouth University poll this month found that health care was the top concern in New Jersey among likely voters.

Menendez repeatedly reminded viewers that he was one of the principal authors of the Affordable Care Act. He also assailed Hugin’s record as chief executive officer of Celgene, a pharmaceutical giant, which raised the price of a cancer drug to $16,000 from $6,000 during his nearly 20-year tenure.

Hugin defended Celgene’s record, saying its medicines had saved lives.

“Cancer is not cheap,” Hugin said. “There are thousands, hundreds of thousands of patients that are alive today that wouldn’t otherwise be alive, because of Celgene.”

A frosty exchange

For most of the debate, the candidates rarely interrupted each other or raised their voices. But after 50 minutes of avoiding outright confrontation, Menendez erupted as Hugin sought to defend an advertisement his campaign released that resurrected unsubstantiated allegations seeking to link Menendez to underage prostitutes.

“It’s a lie, Bob,” Menendez said, turning completely to face Hugin and gesticulating directly at him. “And you know it’s a lie.”

Hugin tried to interject, but Menendez kept going.

“I didn’t interrupt you,” he said. “Don’t interrupt me.”

Hugin, with a mild eye roll, waited as Menendez went on the attack about Celgene “not telling patients about potentially fatal side effects” of a cancer drug.

“You did that,” Menendez said. “Who does that?”

Hugin, remaining calm, stood his ground and offered a terse rebuttal.

“Nope,” he said. “Not true.”

On the trial

While Menendez attempted to tie his opponent to Trump, the Republican challenger worked to weave Menendez’s ethics trial into nearly every issue.

In Hugin’s opening statement: “He doesn’t want to talk about anything in his record of corruption and failure.”

On Menendez missing votes: “He wasn’t there because he was on trial in a federal court.”

On 10 of the 12 jurors in Menendez’s federal trial believing that he was innocent: “He abused the power of his office, disgraced the Senate.”

Hugin also sought to make the case that Menendez’s ethics have made him an ineffective senator.

“We get the least back from Washington than any state in the country,” Hugin said. “It’s not right, it’s time for change.”

Menendez acknowledged some “mistakes” in office but asked voters to look at his lengthy record.

“I understand there are people in our state who are disappointed,” Menendez said. “And I apologize to them. But I also want them to look at my totality of service of standing up for the people of New Jersey.”