WEST ORANGE, New Jersey—In October 2002, Sen. Robert Torricelli (D-NJ), dogged by an ethics scandal, dropped his bid for re-election just weeks before the vote, saying that he didn’t want to cause further harm to his party and imperil its control of the chamber. He was replaced by former Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), who won the race like all New Jersey Senate Democrats have since 1972.
Sixteen years later, Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ), who has served in public office since 1986, is facing the toughest reelection campaign of his life, due exclusively to an indictment on federal corruption charges. But despite some desire to see him bow out before midterm elections, during which the balance of power in the United States Senate could very well be decided, he’s told everyone he’s not going anywhere.
“I’ve always had a motto; there’s only two ways to run: unopposed or scared and then you win,” Menendez told The Daily Beast in an interview at a campaign headquarters for the Essex County Democratic Committee on Thursday.
“I haven’t had any different view. I have worked each election incredibly hard. We’re working just as hard, maybe a little harder,” he said, chuckling a little, “than we actually have in the past in order to achieve victory and I believe that I will.”
If Menendez wins, it will be by margins previously unthinkable for a Democrat running in a deep blue state during this particular cycle. But that’s a problem of his own making. His ethical lapses have allowed Republicans to make the Senate contest in New Jersey an actual race and forced national Democrats to devote millions of dollars they could have invested elsewhere. It’s also left statewide Democrats scrambling for rationalizations as to what, precisely, Menendez could have done that would have disqualified him in their eyes.
Madeline Joy Trimble, a member of the resistance group Indivisible in New Jersey’s 5th congressional district, lamented that it could have been better to have an untarred Democratic candidate in the race.
“Before the primary, I think that there were some concerns in our group that in this cycle we’re so concerned about the corruption in the Trump administration that it might have been better if we had a candidate who had a clean record who wasn’t someone that we were worried could fall under those same sort of corruption concerns,” Trimble told The Daily Beast in an interview. Yet more than 80 percent of the group’s members voted to endorse Menendez. Asked if there is anything he could have done that would have resulted in a lack of support, Trimble said “yes of course,” and referenced the allegations against Alabama Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore, who was accused of sexual misconduct with underage girls.
For Menendez, why someone in New Jersey is choosing to support him is of secondary importance to the fact that they’re supporting him at all.
Last Thursday, he received the full-throated endorsement of the Health Professionals & Allied Employees, a 13,000-person nurses union who enthusiastically backed his bid due to his legislative record on health care. As volunteers milled about the small carpeted room in a central Jersey strip mall featuring Panera and Gamestop, the veteran incumbent laid out the stakes of his campaign. A vote for a Republican, he stressed, was a vote against healthcare and its protections that Obamacare had provided for individuals with pre-existing conditions.
Health care is at the forefront of the Senate election. But it also doesn’t hurt Menendez that President Trump’s approval rating has polled as low as 33 percent in New Jersey in recent months.
Being a bulwark against a deeply unpopular administration that has targeted Obamacare and approved conservative judges at a record clip is a central feature of Menendez’s campaign. “Stop Trump, Vote Menendez” signs dotted the highway on the drive into West Orange and the senior senator from New Jersey has reminded everyone with whom he can speak that his opponent Bob Hugin, a pharmaceutical executive with deep pockets, would be a vote for the president’s agenda in Congress.
“Bob Hugin has shown himself never ever to stand up to Trump,” Menendez told The Daily Beast. “In every iteration when he has had a chance to stand up to the president, he hasn’t. He’ll just be another vote for him.”
Though he has given thousands of dollars to Trump’s campaign and was finance chairman for Trump’s 2016 New Jersey operation, Hugin has marketed himself in a significantly different way in 2018. A former Marine who went into the financial sector and joined the biotechnology company Celgene in 2009, Hugin stressed at a recent debate that he was “not a Trump Republican” but, rather, “an independent Republican.”
In the early summer, Hugin was relatively unknown to voters but he has used at least $24 million of his own personal wealth to blanket the airwaves with slashing negative ads that, in some cases, recycle unproven allegations against Menendez.
One recent spot features a woman watching Harvey Weinstein on the television and saying that she could not explain a vote for Menendez to her infant daughter after learning of “allegations Bob Menendez traveled abroad to have sex with underage prostitutes.” The FBI investigated these claims, tied to Menendez’s relationship with one of his major donors Salomon Melgen, and found the evidence lacking. Subsequently, three women claimed that they were paid to make false claims about Menendez.
But the spots have had their impact. As has the strategy of incessantly reminding voters that Menendez was charged with bribery, fraud and making false statements in connection with granting political favors to Melgen in exchange for campaign contributions. The Department of Justice also alleged that Menendez accepted flights on Melgen’s private jet, took vacations at his villa in the Dominican Republic and did not disclose these gifts on financial disclosure forms. But in November 2017, a judge in New Jersey declared a mistrial as the jury could not reach a unanimous verdict on Menendez’s charges. The following April, before the campaign season really picked up in earnest, the Senate Ethics Committee “severely admonished” Menendez for his conduct.
Since then, Menendez’s political stock has consistently fallen. Hugin narrowed a commanding lead to single digits, which is currently where public polling indicates the race stands. The conventional wisdom is that Menendez will still win. There is a 900,000 person registration advantage for the Democratic party in New Jersey and a number of competitive House races down-ballot that should juice voter turnout.
But the Senate race will still cost the Democrats some cash. The Senate Majority PAC recently spent $2.8 million on TV ads on behalf of Menendez after a $3 million buy earlier this fall.
“The battle becomes, you know, do you want to send someone back to the Senate who has a history of corruption or do you want to send someone who will vote to advance the Trump agenda,” Carl Golden, who used to work for New Jersey Governors Thomas Kean and Christine Whitman told The Daily Beast. “That’s really what it comes down to.”
For New Jersey Democrats, Menendez’s ethical lapses have been an elephant in the room that no one has been able to properly address. The first bit of evidence that they would pose a significant problem came during the primary when a near-unknown Democrat, Lisa McCormick, got nearly 38 percent of the vote. Since then, there have some been private grumblings that Menendez would be wise to pull a Torricelli and drop out of the race, especially after Democratic Governor Phil Murphy (D-NJ) handily won his election in 2017. Had he stepped down then, the governor could have appointed a replacement Senator who would have had the power of the incumbency upon running in this cycle.
But Menendez has defied those calls, banking on the belief that the political climate, the state’s demographics, and built-in support from his past runs will be enough to carry him to victory.
“His record is strong. Fighting for children’s health insurance. Fighting for women to have parity in pay. Gun safety. Working for the working class. That’s what people should be realizing and focusing on,” Catherine Brienza, who runs a community group in New Jersey called Ridgewood JOLT told The Daily Beast. “What he was accused of, and obviously not found guilty of, I don’t know if Republicans would have paid any attention to that if it were in their camp to be honest.”
But what may end up rescuing the Senator, in the end, is that his opponent has his own flaws. There is, of course, Trump. But Hugin has a controversial history as well. His company Celgene raised the price of Revlimid, a cancer drug, from $6,000 for a monthly supply in 2006 to more than $16,000 in 2017 all the while seeking to establish a monopoly. The company also paid $280 million to settle a whistleblower lawsuit last year, in which it was claimed that it had inappropriately promoted its drugs to to treat cancers beyond what had been approved by the Food and Drug Administration.
“I was on one of Bob Hugin’s drugs for five and a half years,” said David Mitchell, who was diagnosed with an incurable but treatable blood cancer called multiple myeloma in 2010.
“Bob Hugin personifies all that is wrong with the drug pricing system and big pharma in the United States of America,” he said. “He abuses patients, rips off taxpayers through Medicare and Medicaid, doubled the price of a life-saving cancer drug, blocked cheaper generics from coming to market, forced patients into debt. Bob Hugin is a terrible man and must never be allowed to go to the United States Senate.”
Hugin has defended himself from these charges by, among other things, noting that “cancer is not cheap.” But in an election cycle that has centered so much around health care, being on the side of defending the exorbitant costs of treatment has its complications. And Menendez has relentlessly exploited them.
“We New Jerseyans know when we’re getting ripped off,” he said, flanked by a cadre of nurses in West Orange, who also emphasized that Hugin’s history was unacceptable to them and voters in the state.
Such lines may just be enough to save the Senator. He certainly is banking on it. But it’s far too close for comfort. And others in the state worry that it may just drive voters away from the election entirely.
“I think many people will be torn between voting for the lesser of two evils and casting a protest vote,” McCormick told The Daily Beast of Hugin and Menendez. “Democrats have a 900,000 vote advantage over Republicans but both 'Bobs' are waging one-dimensional campaigns that are unlikely to change many minds.”