Menendez v. Hugin: Where We Started, and Where We are Now

One candidate is so corrupt he’s been condemned by fellow politicians.

The other is a greedy drug company CEO who took advantage of cancer patients.

There is nothing genteel about the race for U.S. Senate between incumbent Bob Menendez and Republican opponent Bob Hugin. Just look at what they’re saying about each other.

All that is no surprise.

But what is surprising, if not shocking, is that the race is competitive.  Polls have the race much closer than many people anticipated.

A Democratic incumbent running in a “blue” state in a year when Dems seem to have a huge advantage. What could go wrong for Menendez?

Let’s start with a criminal indictment.

We know that Menendez was not found guilty. But that really was not the end of it.

For one thing, the Senate Ethics Committee (Democrats included) admonished him.

For another thing, we have to remember what the charges were. We’re talking corruption centered around accepting and doing favors for a friend. And the juicy tidbits included private airplane rides and stays at luxurious locales outside the country.

That’s something the public can understand, as opposed to, say, insider trading, which is serious, but also arcane.

MacArthur and Hugin

Hugin knows that. Which is why he had ads running all summer saying Menendez is corrupt and that he was judged “guilty” by his peers in the Senate.

Two schools of thought here.

One is that Hugin wasted money running TV commercials in July and August when many “real” people are not watching television or thinking about politics.

But on the other hand, campaigns are circular these days (they never really start or end) so Hugin’s ads could have reached a lot of people who may have been unaware of Menendez’ legal woes.

The incumbent, of course, has ammunition of his own.

Drug companies are not going to win any popularity contests and Hugin ran a drug company, Celgene.

Compounding matters for Hugin is that Celgene last year paid $280 million to settle a lawsuit charging that it promoted two cancer drugs for uses not approved by the FDA. Even in the world of corporate America, $280 million sounds like a lot of money.

Menendez was in Princeton last week condemning Hugin for opposing the admission of women and gays into university eating clubs. Hugin supporters on the outskirts of the crowd started shouting, “Menendez is corrupt.”

Asked about it afterwards, the senator said, “You want to talk about corruption?” and pulled out a release detailing the $280 million settlement.

So that is where we started and that is where we are now.

Corruption.

Corporate greed.

Aren’t there real issues in the race?

Sure, but it’s been so easy to overlook them.

Hugin has attempted to move to the middle at least on some issues. He says he supports gay rights and marriage equality. He says people who came to this country illegally and who are law-abiding and working (this would cover the so-called Dreamers) have a right to citizenship. But he opposes “sanctuary” cities and states.

Menendez’ main substantive argument is that he will stand up to the policies of Donald Trump. This is no small thing.

It is President Trump who has galvanized Democrats and those on the left for the last year and a half. If this election is a referendum on Trump – and it very well may be – the incumbent is in a good position. And what helps him is that Hugin was a financial backer of the president.

But the corruption charge is not going away. In fact, there were signs last June of Menendez’ seeming vulnerability when an unknown candidate came close to getting 40 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary.

What will those anti-Menendez primary voters do on Nov. 6? Will enough Democrats and progressives unhappy with Menendez back him just to stop Donald Trump? 

What do these voters see as a greater evil – the ethically-challenged Menendez in the Senate for six more years or a GOP senator who seems inclined to back Trump at least most of the time?

This is New Jersey, so you figure the anti-Trump sentiment has the advantage. But you really don’t know how many Dems and liberals will hold their nose and vote for Menendez.

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