Have Democrats Overlooked Sen. Bob Menendez's Vulnerability in New Jersey? How His Plight Imperils Any Hope for Senate Control

A two-term incumbent Democrat in solidly blue New Jersey is now locked in a battle for his Senate seat with a wealthy Republican. How did this race get so close?

What to Know

  • The next campaign finance reports will be released Oct. 15, and is expected to show Hugin spent tens of millions in ads this summer.
  • Democrats have long been excited about the prospects of retaking the U.S. House. Their chances of taking control of the Senate are longer.
  • "If they suddenly lost New Jersey, then I think it's game over," political analyst Jennifer Duffy on Democrats' hopes for a Senate majority.

A suddenly close race between New Jersey's incumbent Democratic U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez and the wealthy former pharmaceutical executive challenging him could end up dashing any hopes Democrats have of taking control of the Senate in the Nov. 6 midterm elections.

Republican Bob Hugin spent all summer flooding the airwaves with political ads. Some observers believe he could eventually spend up to $40 million of his personal wealth in the bid to unseat Menendez.

And his efforts are paying off.

Two polls released in the first week of October show that Hugin has closed the gap with Menendez to only a few points.

"You don't have to go too far back, like June, when a poll had Hugin down 17 points," said Al Gaburo, the Republican chairman in Somerset County. "This summer, Bob Hugin has really closed the gap. For him to be within the margin of error on Oct. 1 is really, really good news."

It's not good news, however, for Democrats nationally. The improbable, but not impossible, prospects of a Democratic Senate majority requires incumbents like Menendez, who is seeking his third term, to win re-election — and then defeating a few Republicans in toss-up races.

"Their path to the Senate (majority) is tough to begin with," senior editor Jennifer Duffy of the non-partisan Cook's Political Report said. "If they suddenly lost New Jersey, then I think it's game over."

Throughout the summer, excitement among Democrats centered on reclaiming control of Congress by flipping roughly 25 to 40 U.S. House seats from red to blue.

A path to taking control of the Senate is more challenging, despite the current razor-thin 51-49 advantage for Republicans, because 26 of the 35 seats up for election are held by Democrats.

Much effort is being exerted on toss-up races, with the expectation that a "blue wave" would carry the day for incumbents in states like New Jersey.

Did that leave Menendez, who just last year faced a federal corruption trial, overlooked and vulnerable?

Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez in November 2017.

"Most people thought Menendez would win despite his problems," Patrick Murray of the Monmouth University Polling Institute said in September. 

A poll by Farleigh Dickinson University released Oct. 3 found Menendez's lead is down to six points among likely voters.

Hugin spent almost $9 million before the summer months even began heating up, according to his June 30 federal campaign filing. When the next campaign finance reports are made public in mid-October, some observers believe the tally may reach $25 million. And that'll be before the final five weeks are totaled. Menendez spent about $4 million, according to his June 30 filing.

Hugin's willingness to use his own money to fuel his campaign has given the Republican Party's national leaders the luxury to spend money elsewhere.

The former chief executive of Celgene, a New Jersey-based pharmaceutical giant, has long been involved in Republican cash flow. He was a top donor to Gov. Chris Christie during his eight years as governor and served as finance committee member for President Trump in 2016.

Julio Cortez/AP
Bob Hugin in June 2018.

He is a former Marine who went to Princeton University and comes from the same town as Menendez: Union City in Hudson County.

Menendez, the son of Cuban immigrants, cut his teeth rising through the ranks of the Hudson County Democratic Party. He served as mayor of his hometown, then spent time in the New Jersey legislature and as a congressman before being elected to the Senate in 2006. He is the first Latino American to serve New Jersey as a senator.

His resume from the 12 years in the Senate include a seat on the powerful Foreign Relations Committee and work as a liaison to Cuba during President Obama's move to re-establish diplomatic ties. Menendez also was part of the Gang of Eight, a bipartisan panel that worked on immigration reform in 2013.

But Menendez is seeking voters' support a year after he fought federal corruption charges in a case that ended in mistrial. The trial played out over several weeks in late 2017, and gave Hugin plenty of political firepower for attack ads.

Despite the one-sided spending on television ads, Democrats believed their 900,000-voter advantage in New Jersey would provide Menendez with enough of a cushion in an election year that many predict will be a referendum on the Trump administration's policies.

In both of the recent polls of New Jersey voters, those surveyed said Trump plays a large role in both how they will evaluate the candidates on the ballot and how enthusiastic they are about voting.

As has often been the case in the midterm elections of first-term presidents, what happened in the White House the previous two years looms large.

Menendez's camp still sees a clear path to victory, his spokesman said.

"There will be more ads, more concentration on TV, the internet on all the different platforms. He's certainly out there now and that's going to increase," campaign spokesman Steve Sandberg said. "His record really speaks for itself. We'll be able to remind people of his message and also compare and contrast him to Bob Hugin."

If the polls, one conducted by Stockton University and the other by FDU, have given new urgency to Menendez's campaign, they have also excited Hugin's people.

"Bob Hugin continues to gain momentum, while corrupt, career politician Bob Menendez remains one of the most unpopular incumbents in the country," said Campaign Manager Stacy Schuster.

Duffy, the analyst for Cook's Political Report, believes Menendez remains the front-runner, if no longer a prohibitive favorite.

Asked about the path to a Senate majority for Democrats, she said they must win six of the eight races that are looking like "Toss-ups" five weeks before the election.

Four of those races involve Democratic incumbents: 

The other four include two Republican incumbents and two open seats previously held by Republicans:

Like Menendez in New Jersey, nothing can be taken for granted in national politics between now and Nov. 6, Duffy said. Cook's currently has the New Jersey race as "Likely Democrat."

"And the map is getting a bit more volatile, largely because of (the Supreme Court nominee) Brett Kavanaugh," she said. "Does Montana move to Toss Up? Does West Virginia move back? Do Democratic prospects dim in Tennessee and Texas?"

For a complete layout of the 35 Senate seats on ballots in November, see a full breakdown here.

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