On September 24, 2017, I wrote a column for InsiderNJ.com entitled ” A Kean, Jr. – Menendez 2018 Rematch?”. (https://www.insidernj.com/kean-jr-menendez-2018-rematch/) In that column, I described how Tom Kean, Jr. would make an ideal contrasting candidate to incumbent Democratic U.S. Senator Bob Menendez. Kean, Jr., with his impeccable ethics record, distinguished legislative service, and status as the scion of New Jersey’s most honored and distinguished political family, against Menendez, would virtually guarantee the New Jersey Republican Party its first victory in a U.S. Senate general election contest since Clifford Case’s 1972 reelection victory.
This past Tuesday’s unexpectedly close result in the Democratic U.S. Senate primary between Menendez and his virtually anonymous opponent reveals how vulnerable Menendez would have been this November against a stellar candidate like Tom Kean, Jr. Against the Republican nominee, Bob Hugin, a candidate with politically malignant vulnerabilities, Menendez remains a distinct favorite.
The unexpectedly close New Jersey U.S. Senatorial Democratic primary has not changed the fundamental character of the forthcoming Menendez- Hugin general election. This will be a campaign of two powerful sets of contrasting negative messages. And both sets of messages are true. The question is which negative message set will be more compelling in driving the base of each party to the polls. Some takeaways from Tuesday’s primary follow:
1. The message of Republican challenger Bob Hugin is that incumbent Democrat U.S. Senator Bob Menendez is corrupt in the extreme, even by New Jersey standards. That message is incontestably true. It has been confirmed by the recent bipartisan Senate Ethics committee admonishment of Menendez for taking gifts from Dr. Salomon Melgin and not reporting them on his disclosure forms. In the absence of powerful negatives on the part of Hugin himself, this would be sufficient to elect the Republican challenger.
2. The Hugin negatives are there, however, and Menendez will be sufficiently funded to inform the electorate of them. The Menendez negative message is two-fold, relating to 1) Hugin’s activities as CEO of Celgene, a New Jersey based pharmaceutical company; and 2) his role in the Trump campaign.
- While Hugin served as CEO of Celgene, the company was accused of increasing the prices of cancer drugs and refusing to cooperate with companies producing generic versions of its drugs. Pharmaceutical companies are notterribly popular in New Jersey right now, and the attack on Celgene may aid Menendez in his outreach to senior citizens and suburban voters. The results of the primary showed most graphically Menendez’s weakness in suburbia, and the Celgene attacks will be essential to blunt Hugin’s suburban and exurban edge.
4. Menendez must get a major turnout from his base in order to win. The core of his base is the minority communities, African-American and Hispanic. Within these constituencies, Trump toxicity is at an all-time high.
Trump is currently in a continuing war with African-American athletes, as exhibited by his defamation of NFL kneelers and their refusal to attend White House championship ceremonies. Trump administration border immigration policies have had a most inhumane impact on Hispanic immigrants seeking refuge from violence, resulting in forced breakup of families and separation of children from parents.
Hugin, a major fundraiser, donor, and convention delegate for Trump, is attempting to distance himself from the president. His attempts come over as insincere, pathetic, and phony. Hugin’s association with Trump will be a major tool in the get-out-the-vote efforts of Bob Menendez in urban New Jersey.
5. Menendez has been an outspoken friend and supporter of the State of Israel in the United States Senate. The Jewish vote in New Jersey usually comprises about ten per cent of the total vote. Usually, the vote is overwhelmingly Democratic. This year, the vote will be nearly unanimous for Menendez. The Jewish community will play a major role in the Menendez fundraising as well.
6. Wild Card: When will the Mueller report on the obstruction be released? Remember how the Saturday night massacre in October, 1973 resulted in the explosion of Brendan Byrne’s margin over Charlie Sandman.
BOTTOM LINE: Menendez remains the favorite over Hugin. This situation is not likely to change. As stated above, had the NJGOP nominated Tom Kean, Jr., the Republicans in New Jersey this November would have achieved their first election victory for a U.S. Senate seat since Clifford Case in 1972. Instead, the Republicans have nominated Bob Hugin, a ship too laden with baggage to ever leave port. In fact, in political/nautical terms, Bob Hugin is the 2018 equivalent of the Lusitania.
Alan J. Steinberg served as Regional Administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of former President George W. Bush and as Executive Director of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission under former New Jersey Governor Christie Whitman.