- Associated Press - Sunday, February 18, 2018

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) - New Jersey Democrats like what they see when they scan how the midterm election ballot is taking shape, even as Republicans welcomed a well-heeled contender to this year’s Senate race.

Voters will be going to the polls in November to pick one of their U.S. senators and all 12 of their representatives. Former pharmaceutical executive and Chris Christie donor Bob Hugin launched his campaign to oust incumbent Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez. Hugin’s supporters expect he’ll spend tens of millions of his own cash to support his bid.

The contests are in their early days of shaping up and they’re coming together as Democrats nationwide lead Republicans in polls on congressional representation.

Republicans control the House and Senate and have a favorable map in Senate contests. But there are headwinds, especially in Democrat-leaning New Jersey. President Donald Trump’s low approval rating and the tendency for presidential parties to lose seats in their first midterms should give Democrats optimism, experts say.

Democrats control seven of the state’s 12 congressional districts, while Republicans hold five seats.

A closer look at how things are taking shape:



Menendez, a two-term incumbent, survived the federal government’s corruption case against him, but it’s an issue that Hugin has already homed in on. Menendez faced an indictment that he traded favors with a Florida eye doctor, but the case ended in a hung jury. Prosecutors then declined to retry him. Republicans are betting that even though he wasn’t convicted, the charges will leave an impression on voters.

“I’ve seen a lot of public polling that the trial last fall made a negative impression on voters which has seemed to have stuck with them,” said Bill Palatucci, the Republican National Committeeman in New Jersey.

Menendez’s job approval sank in public polls during the trial, but Democrats are hopeful that Hugin’s support of Trump and former Gov. Chris Christie will help sink him.

“He has to answer for both their political records, in the absence of having his own,” said Democratic strategist Julie Roginsky.

Experts say they expect Menendez to rebound from a tough year.

“Hugin wants to make the U.S. Senate race a referendum on Bob Menendez,” said Fairleigh Dickinson University political science professor Peter Woolley. “Menendez will point out the obvious. He was tried. He was not found guilty. The matter is closed.”

Hugin is expected to spend millions of his own cash to take on Menendez. The senator’s campaign coffers had $4.1 million on hand, according to the Federal Election Commission.

Menendez could also benefit from the statewide vote, since New Jersey has nearly 900,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans.



Republican retirements in southern New Jersey’s 2nd District and northern New Jersey’s 11th District have Democrats optimistic they can pick up at least two seats.

Republican incumbents representatives Frank LoBiondo, whose district includes Atlantic City, and Rodney Frelinghuysen, who hails from Morris County, are calling it quits, and the Democratic candidates vying to succeed them have a foothold already.

In the 2nd District, Democratic state Sen. Jeff Van Drew already represents a portion of the district and is well-known. He’s a moderate Democrat who has been waiting on the sidelines to run for years.

In the 11th District, Democrat Mikie Sherrill has picked up momentum. She’s a former Navy pilot and federal prosecutors who has $821,000 on hand already.

It’s less certain that Democrats in other districts will have as favorable odds, but they could win, says Monmouth University Polling Institute Director Patrick Murray, “if the blue wave we are seeing right now becomes a tsunami.”


Follow Catalini at https://twitter.com/mikecatalini.

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