Politics & Policy

The Hugin Knot

Republican candidate Bob Hugin (left) and Democratic Senator Bob Menendez at a debate in Newark, N.J., October 24, 2018. (Julio Cortez/Pool via Reuters)
Do Republicans dare to believe in a New Jersey candidate, one more time?

Hey, this guy Bob Hugin has a shot.”

Hold up. Slow down. We’ve been here before. This is New Jersey, the state that, with only one exception in the last few decades, breaks GOP hearts every cycle. The last time the Garden State elected a Republican senator was 1972. They’ve had two Republicans appointed to finish out the terms of departed senators since then, and that’s it.

“Yeah, but this year’s different. People are really fed up with incumbent Democrat Bob Menendez’s ethics problems. This guy Bob Hugin has a shot.”

It takes a heck of lot to get voters fed up with a Democrat’s ethics problems in New Jersey. This is a state where three mayors and two assemblymen were swept up in a corruption probe that included offers to sell a human kidney, and the mayor of Union City was reelected the day after he was sentenced to prison.

Way back in 2002, Doug Forrester almost succeeded in beating Democratic incumbent senator Bob Torricelli by attacking his horrific record on ethics. But state Democrats pulled “the Torricelli maneuver” and simply replaced Bob Torricelli with the retired Frank Lautenberg on September 30, just five weeks before the election. It was after the deadline for those sorts of changes, but the state Supreme Court said not to worry about it. Lautenberg won by nine points.

This state chose Jim McGreevey over Bret Schundler back in 2001, and then chose Jon Corzine over Forrester in 2005.

Republicans thought George W. Bush had a real shot to take the Garden State from Al Gore in the 2000 presidential election, and Gore won by 16 points. Then Republicans believed that the 9/11 effect was going to put New Jersey in play in the 2004 presidential race, and it did narrow it quite a bit, but Kerry still won by six points.

It takes a lot more than damaging revelations of a scandal to take down a Democrat in a statewide race. Cory Booker made up stories about his imaginary friend T-Bone and won comfortably in 2013 and 2014.

Sure, Bob Menendez’s record — federal charges of bribery and fraud, a defense that claimed trading gifts and favors was just routine friendship, a trial that ended in a hung jury and unconfirmed allegations of underage prostitutes, a “severe admonishment” by the Senate ethics committee — qualifies as a Superfund site. But the Newark Star-Ledger’s endorsement epitomized the thinking of many of the state’s Democrats: “Choke it down and vote for Menendez.” The Philadelphia Inquirer (whose circulation extends into southern New Jersey) declared that the incumbent is “guilty of betraying the public trust” . . . and then endorsed him because of his stances on “gun safety, civil rights, and a woman’s right to choose.”

“Yeah, but this year’s different. Look at the polling. The Rutgers-Eagleton poll has Menendez’s lead down to just five points! This guy Bob Hugin has a shot.”

I suppose that should count as an accomplishment; Joseph Kyrillos never came all that close to Menendez in 2012.

But we shouldn’t get that excited about a poll showing a Republican somewhat close in New Jersey. The first time Bob Menendez ran for Senate, as the appointed replacement for Jon Corzine back in 2006, GOP challenger Thomas Kean Jr. was tied with him in a late-October Rasmussen poll. A Monmouth/Gannett poll had Menendez ahead by just three points in early November, and the final Quinnipiac poll had Menendez ahead by only five points.

But on Election Night, Menendez had won, 53.4 percent to 44.3 percent.

Two years later, in 2008, a summer poll commissioned by the Club for Growth showed Republican Dick Zimmer ahead of incumbent Democrat Lautenberg by one point. Throughout autumn, polls by Rasmussen, Strategic Vision, and Marist showed Zimmer within seven. And on Election Day . . . Lautenberg won by 14 points.

“Yeah, but this year’s different. Hugin’s wealthy enough to self-fund, and he’s already spent $24 million on this race! This guy has a shot.”

Lots of promising Republican statewide candidates have spent chunks of their own fortunes and found disappointing results. Forrester spent $7 million of his own money in the 2002 Senate race, and then another $29 million in his governor’s race in 2005 — and those figures aren’t adjusted for inflation.

Former senator and governor Jon Corzine would call Hugin a cheapskate — he spent $60 million on his first bid for Senate, $41.3 million in his first run for governor in 2005, and $27.4 million in his losing reelection bid in 2009.

Corzine’s loss to Chris Christie in 2009 gives a sense of the perfect storm that a New Jersey Republican needs to win statewide: high levels of voter dissatisfaction and anger, provided there by the Great Recession; an energized GOP grassroots (remember, this was around the beginning of the tea-party movement); a flawed, charisma-free Democrat; and a scandal-free, likeable, relatable candidate on the Republican side. A lot of people forget how deftly Christie handled a late-October Corzine ad that accused Christie of “throwing his weight around.”

“It’s just silly, it’s beneath the office he holds,” Christie said during an appearance on Don Imus’s radio program. “If you’re going to do it, at least man-up and say I’m fat. Afterwards he wusses out and says, ‘Oh no, I didn’t mean that! I don’t know what you’re talking about.’ If you say I’m fat, I’m fat! . . . I am setting an example, Don. We have to spur our economy. Dunkin Donuts, International House of Pancakes, those people need to work, too.”

A scandal-plagued Democratic incumbent is more or less standard in New Jersey. For a long time, Garden State Democrats didn’t see the opposition party as the Republicans; their most formidable opponent was the FBI.

“Yeah, but this year’s different. Hugin’s a good candidate, like Christie.”

Hugin is a fine candidate. He served in the U.S. Marine Corps for seven years, he made his fortune at Celgene Corporation, he was fierce in the debate, he prefers Bon Jovi to Springsteen, and his favorite movie is Airplane. But he’s not all that different from those other Republicans who fell short. Forrester was also a businessman with no experience in elected office who made his fortune in pharmaceuticals. Bret Schundler made his fortune at Salomon Brothers before getting elected mayor of Jersey City.

Menendez’s counterattack was to claim Hugin was “a Trump clone,” and there’s some justification for the charge; Hugin was Trump’s finance chair in New Jersey and served as a Trump delegate to the GOP convention. Trump’s approval is just 35 percent in New Jersey, so if you’re a Democrat, you tie your opponent to Trump every chance you get.

“Yeah, but this year’s different. The Latino Leadership Alliance of New Jersey just announced an endorsement of Hugin over Menendez. And the Cook Political Report just changed its assessment of the race to ‘Toss Up.’ This guy Hugin has a shot.”

Okay, now we’re getting somewhere; both of those developments are unusual in this state. It’s also a little unusual that 38 percent of Democrats voted for his primary opponent, who was practically unknown — clearly there are some Democrats who are appalled by Menendez’s scandals and wanted to send a message.

And the other unusual point is that Chuck Schumer’s Senate Majority PAC has now committed $6 million for television ads in this state — a hefty investment and one you make only if you need it, considering how close the Senate races are in Florida, Missouri, Indiana, and elsewhere. In fact, Schumer’s PAC has now spent more on ads against Hugin than against Kevin Cramer in North Dakota, Matt Rosendale in Montana, or Martha McSally in Arizona. Some of that reflects the cost of advertising in New Jersey, but you don’t commit resources to expensive television markets such as New York City and Philadelphia unless you have to — suggesting that Schumer and his allies think they must do this to save Menendez.

Maybe this guy Hugin has a shot after all.

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