By the time Bob Menendez took the mic at the New Jersey Democratic State Committee’s annual conference in September, the crowd at Harrah’s Atlantic City had largely thinned out. It had been a long day, punctuated by a rousing lunchtime rally led by Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez.
But in the preceding 24 hours, party standard-bearers took to the stage, one-by-one, to go to bat for Menendez, the state’s senior senator who has held his seat since 2006.
In normal times, Menendez’s re-election would have been a forgone conclusion, especially in a midterm election where many pundits expect a “blue wave” to put the Democrats back in control of the U.S. House of Representatives and perhaps pick up seats in the Senate as well.
But these are not normal times, as Menendez articulated in his speech to the conference.
“We have a president who divides us by who we are, where we came from, what we look like, the color of our skin or who we love,” he told the crowd. “We have a president who ultimately would turn back the clock to a time and place that none of us would want to go to.”
And this is no normal election. Despite surviving a federal corruption trial over allegations he performed political favors for a key donor and friend in exchange for accepting gifts without disclosing them as required by Senate and federal law — the trial ended in a hung jury — Menendez continues to be dogged by the scandal.
His opponent, former Celgene Corp. Executive Chair Bob Hugin, has frequently dubbed Menendez “a career, corrupt politician” and pounded him for months over the ethics charges.
The result has been an ever-tightening race that threatens Menendez’s hold on his job — and any chance the Democrats have to gain seats in the Senate.
Poll after poll have shown Menendez with a single-digit lead over Hugin, oftentimes within the margin of error.
A Rutgers Eagleton poll released Oct. 24 showed Menendez holding a narrow 5-point lead over Hugin, with respondents citing concerns over the incumbent’s corruption trial.
The poll indicated 51 percent of likely voters favor Menendez, compared to 46 percent for Hugin. Among independents, 50 percent favored Hugin, 43 percent Menendez.
And enthusiasm among voters has been dampened as well, according to the poll. Fifty-eight percent of Hugin voters said they were enthusiastic about their candidate, compared to just 29 percent of Menendez supporters.
What is clear is Menendez’s poll numbers have dwindled as the race has gotten nastier.
For example, in mid-October, Hugin launched a $1 million ad campaign resurrecting unsubstantiated charges from years back that Menendez solicited underage prostitutes while in the Dominican Republic. Menendez, in a press conference that same week, called Hugin the “slimiest of slimeballs.”
In turn, Menendez has hammered Hugin as a “greedy” former pharmaceutical executive who made a “killing off cancer patients” by spiking the cost of their medications.
The animosity between the two men runs so deep they refused to shake hands after their one and only debate Oct. 24.
“After his recent onslaught of attack ads against Menendez, Hugin is making this race much closer than it should be for an incumbent in a blue state,” said Ashley Koning, director of the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling at Rutgers, upon release of the poll results. “But what’s most responsible for the narrow margin here is the corruption charges against Menendez that have haunted his entire re-election campaign. Mistrial or not, the charges have dampened support where Menendez needs it most — with independents and even a handful of his own base.”
The stakes couldn’t be higher for the Democrats. Across the U.S., 25 are fighting to keep their Senate seats, including Menendez. Republicans, in contrast, have nine to defend. And Republicans narrowly hold the Senate by a 51-47 majority.
There are two other Senate Democrats in the same boat as Menendez: Joe Manchin in West Virginia and Tina Smith in Minnesota.
Four Senate seats are rated as “Toss Up”: those in Florida, Indiana, Missouri and Montana. The North Dakota seat currently held by Democrat Heidi Heitkamp is now considered “Lean Republican.”
Jennifer Duffy, senior editor at Cook, said Menendez has New Jersey’s strong Democratic voting base going for him. But she added she would not be blindsided by a Hugin victory.
“You got to the primary and a candidate who spent no money [and] had no name ID got 38 percent [of the vote],” Duffy said, referencing Lisa McCormick, who unsuccessfully sought the Democratic nomination against Menendez in June.
The result was less a vote for McCormick than a vote against Menendez, Duffy said.
Perhaps surprisingly to some, Menendez and Hugin agree on some key issues. For one, they each told NJBIZ they believe President Trump’s international trade disputes will hurt New Jersey businesses.
Menendez said tariffs would drive up costs for businesses and consumers and cost the state jobs.
“The way to have dealt with China’s unfair trading practices was to create a global coalition as we were beginning to do — to bring Canada, the European Union, Japan, South Korea, Australia and other major countries to coalesce around an effort to challenge China and make it the bad actor of the World Trade Organization,” he said.
Hugin, agreeing tariffs could hurt the state’s economy, nonetheless said they were a means to an end.
“Tariffs are a bad thing, except that they’re used as a negotiating tactic,” Hugin said. “That’s OK as long as you come to the conclusion of a deal, which Canada and Mexico have.”
“It’s very encouraging to see the agreement with Canada and Mexico and the United States to reform the previous NAFTA,” he continued. “Those are important trade partners.”
The two also agree the state desperately needs a new tunnel under the Hudson River and federal funding to make such the project known as the Gateway Tunnel a reality.
“We got a combination of the states of New York and New Jersey as well as the Port Authority to ante up even more money from our side so that we could end up getting a greater commitment from the federal government,” Menendez said.
The Trump administration, he added, has been “playing politics” by continually denying funding.
“Everything they’ve asked for has been achieved by having even more skin in the game than we had before,” Menendez said. “Therefore I would expect that these projects would get high ratings, and that the administration ultimately will go along with the funding that we’re driving through Congress.”
Hugin, however, criticized Menendez for his handling of the tunnel’s funding.
“New Jersey’s gotten the short end of the stick for 25 years. The entire time Bob Menendez has been in Washington, New Jersey has been underserved,” Hugin said. “The Gateway Tunnel should’ve been done 25 years ago. The Portal Bridge is over a hundred years old. It should’ve been done in the 1990s.”
With Menendez in the Senate, the Obama administration committed $3 billion in federal funding for a trans-Hudson Tunnel, called the ARC, which former Gov. Chris Christie scuttled in 2010, citing potential cost overruns.
Menendez and the late Frank Lautenberg, his predecessor as the senior Democratic senator from New Jersey, unveiled plans the next year for what they called the Gateway Tunnel.
Hugin said he was critical of Gov. Phil Murphy’s recently unveiled economic master plan, calling it “high-level words” that did not address the root of the state’s economic woes.
“In New Jersey, it’s very hard to bring employees from outside the state into New Jersey because it’s so unaffordable,” he said. “The taxes are so high, the property tax is so high, the income tax is so high. … I think the business sentiment in New Jersey is very discouraging and frustrating.”
Menendez said he supported efforts by the Murphy administration to bypass the $10,000 federal cap on state and local tax deductions by making those payments as charitable contributions to municipalities. Hugin did not support such efforts, but faulted Menendez for not pushing for a higher SALT deduction cap.
On the legalization of marijuana, Menendez said the federal government should maintain a hand-offs approach when it comes to state’s rights.
“I think that the federal government shouldn’t be superseding states on this,” Menendez said, especially as it relates to medicinal or adult use.
Menendez said he is in favor of decriminalization but remains undecided about recreational use by adults, something Murphy and the Democratic legislative leadership have been pushing for.
“I believe we should decriminalize, and we should go back and look at the convictions of simpler uses. At the end of the day that affects their ability to get gainful employment,” he said.
As for adult use, he said he would want to see studies that ensure recreational marijuana does not hamper job productivity nor create a public safety risk.
“Getting some data so that we’re making a decision based on science I think is incredibly important,” he said.
Hugin, meanwhile, said he supports medicinal cannabis and decriminalization, but balked at the idea of legalizing recreational marijuana use among adults.
“I believe patients should always be put first, but we should be tasking the Food and Drug Administration to examine the clinical data to make sure that patients are in fact getting the benefit,” Hugin said.
“Public health and public safety come first and in the urban areas, there’s resistance to legalization of marijuana because they’re concerned, and rightly so,” he continued. “There’s evidence on both sides on whether marijuana a gateway drug.”
Hugin said he was supportive of a “living wage opportunity to make a good income” but still remained wary of how an increase in the minimum wage could affect businesses. Murphy wants to up the wage to $15 an hour but do it incrementally over a period of years.
On the one hand, Hugin said, a minimum wage increase would protect lower-income and younger workers. But, he added, any increase also needs to include carve-outs for the industries that “need to be protected.”
“I was down in South Jersey recently with a uniform manufacturing company,” Hugin said. “They have to compete with North Carolina, South Carolina, and the situation of the labor costs is different. So we have to recognize there’s trade-offs with every decision we make. So how do we do it and how we implement it and the specifics of the carve-out and how they’re done is critical.”
Menendez said he supports an increase to the minimum wage, saying boosting pay would have a “ripple effect that grows out the economy.” He voted in 2007 to increase the federal minimum wage from $5.15 an hour to the current $7.25.
On job training, Menendez pointed to his sponsorship of the Better Education and Skills Training for America’s Workforce Act, which would encourage partnerships between local businesses and college and tax credits for businesses that train long-term unemployed workers.
“What I see increasingly, talking to New Jersey businesses about their concerns about labor shortage in the state, I think this is a way that approaches both the labor shortages and at the same time creates work,” Menendez said.
The bill did not make any progress in Congress and was reintroduced in 2013 and 2017.
He also pointed to the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act, which he said would provide workers with technical skills training.
“Community colleges can be great partners with the private sectors in building the skills universe for the jobs that even in our state go unfilled because they don’t have people with the appropriate skills,” Menendez said.
Hugin said he believes the state’s education system has not been preparing students well enough — for the “jobs of the future,” be it in production or specialized trades.
“We’re not providing the kind of vocational training to certain people that’s better suited to their career development,” he said. “Or we’re not providing the kind of training in high school and the community colleges to prepare kids for the information technology world that we live in today.”
As a result, many students end up in costly undergraduate programs with no clear direction and mountains of student debt, he said.