Senate race taking shape before primary is settled

May 31, 2018 - 11:55 am

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — Ads with grainy images and pointed attacks? Check. Millions of dollars in campaign coffers? Check again.

This year's race for a U.S. Senate seat from New Jersey won't start officially until after Tuesday's Democratic and Republican primaries.

But already incumbent Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez and Republican challenger Bob Hugin are hurling insults at one another in what will be New Jersey's only statewide contest this fall and an arena in the national fight for control of the narrowly divided Senate.

Menendez is running for his third six-year term after facing little primary competition in his previous two elections. This year he faces publisher Lisa McCormick, who mounted a campaign for governor last year before backing another candidate.

Hugin, who headed biopharmaceutical company Celgene until this year, is largely self-financing his campaign and has broad GOP support against Brian Goldberg, a self-described IT professional and construction company executive.

Voters will be going to the polls just weeks after the Senate Ethics Committee rebuked Menendez for accepting valuable gifts — and failing to report them — to advance the interests of a donor and friend. That, coupled with a criminal corruption case against Menendez that got tossed out, are fueling Hugin's attacks.

In one campaign ad, Hugin shows images of Menendez that look washed out and with the word "disgrace." Hugin's central argument boils down to another frequent tagline: "New Jersey Deserves Better."

Menendez was indicted on charges that he accepted lavish gifts, including luxury trips to Paris, from his long-time friend Dr. Salomon Melgen in return for help settling a Medicaid billing dispute. The case was eventually dropped after a hung jury last year, but the Senate committee admonished Menendez over the gifts.

For his part, Menendez attacks Hugin as a "greedy CEO." Hugin's firm, Celgene, settled for $280 million last year over allegations that it promoted cancer drugs that were not approved by the Food and Drug Administration. Celgene did not admit liability in the agreement.

Experts say the sharply worded attacks are a recipe for a negative fall campaign.

"I expect the fall campaign will be nasty - even by New Jersey standards," said Peter Woolley, a politics professor at Fairleigh Dickinson University. "When the candidates go negative before the primary is even held, you can look forward to lots more of the same in the general election."

Menendez has been leading in head-to-head polls against Hugin by as many as 21 points, though a recent Fairleigh Dickinson University poll showed the senator leading by just 4 points. That poll surveyed 856 registered voters this month and had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

Mostly, Menendez promotes himself as a check on President Donald Trump, who is unpopular in New Jersey, where Democrats have nearly 900,000 more registered voters than Republicans. His primary opponent, McCormick, promises to be a change candidate.

Hugin says he'll be independent from Trump if elected. His primary opponent, Goldberg, pledges to support the president.

Both McCormick and Goldberg seem to have raised little campaign cash compared to their opponents. McCormick has not filed with the Federal Elections Commission, according to a search of the database. Goldberg has about $4,500 on hand.

That contrasts with Menendez, who raised about $600,000 from April to May, according to the FEC, and has $5.6 million on hand. Hugin raised under $300,000 in the same period and has $4.5 million on hand. He's also loaned his campaign about $7.5 million.

The race is sure to garner attention from outside the state because control of the Senate is up for grabs. Republicans hold 51 seats in the Senate, and Democrats control 49, including two independents.