Sen. Robert Menendez was saved from jail time for corruption charges by a hung jury last year and survived a closer-than-expected primary Tuesday — yet he’s still the favorite to win re-election in New Jersey this year.
Republicans, though, now have a nominee they say will test the embattled incumbent Democrat.
Bob Hugin, a deep-pocketed former executive of a pharmaceutical company, easily won the GOP’s primary on Tuesday.
“Sen. Menendez has embarrassed our state for 25 years,” Mr. Hugin told The Washington Times this week. “At a time when Republicans and Democrats in Washington can’t agree on anything, the bipartisan Senate Ethics Committee confirmed Sen. Menendez broke the law.”
Republicans say they are hopeful that Mr. Hugin can break a four-decade losing streak for the GOP in New Jersey Senate races. They point to a recent poll from Fairleigh Dickinson University that found Mr. Menendez held a slim 28 percent to 24 percent lead over Mr. Hugin, and that nearly half of the state’s registered voters remained on the fence.
That suggests the frustration voters have with both sides.
Republicans have seen prospects dim after eight years of former Gov. Chris Christie, whose outsized personality, a bridge-closure scandal and a government shutdown that saw the governor relaxing on a closed public beach all took their toll on the GOP’s brand.
Mr. Menendez, meanwhile, survived a corruption trial after a jury hung and prosecutors said the judge made it impossible for them to retry the case. He claimed vindication in the mistrial, but a subsequent admonishment by the Senate ethics committee and the sordid details that emerged at trial of the tight relationship Mr. Menendez had with a convicted scammer have cost him.
He won his primary Tuesday 62-38 over Lisa McCormick, who ran a shoestring campaign.
Patrick Murray, director of the Director Monmouth University Polling Institute, said Mrs. McCormick was a “paper candidate” and said the outcome amounts to a “huge protest vote.”
“There’s no question that [Mr. Menendez’s] recent troubles have been a drag on his job approval and favorability ratings,” Mr. Murray said.
Still, it remains to be seen whether the blowback will be enough for Mr. Hugin to win a general election race in a deep-blue state where Republicans are significantly outnumbered and increasingly endangered.
A couple of GOP House members from New Jersey congressional delegation have opted against seeking re-election, while Republican Reps. Leonard Lance in the 7th Congressional District and Tom MacArthur in the 3rd Congressional District are considered vulnerable.
In the Senate primary races Tuesday, over 415,000 people cast votes in the Democratic contest — nearly 200,000 more than the final tally in the GOP race.
“First of all, in New Jersey still has a strong Democratic Party,” said John Graham, a member of the Democratic National Committee from New Jersey. “Second of all, [Mr. Menendez] has a lot of Latino and Hispanic support. Thirdly, he was not found guilty of anything. It is over, and the government decided to drop the case because there was nothing.”
Mr. Graham insisted Mr. Menendez is taking nothing for granted.
“He is a two-fisted Jim Cagney type,” he said. “He is a puncher. He keeps coming back at you. He is loyal to his friends — and to his enemies, he treats them accordingly.”
Michael Soliman, Mr. Menendez’s campaign manager, said the senator is focused on making health care more affordable, stopping gun violence and “growing our economy in a way that creates more opportunity for everyone, not just the wealthy” and said Mr. Hugin has political baggage.
“Hugin made millions by raising prices on cancer drugs more than 200 percent and doing everything he could to block generics from coming to market that would provide needed relief for people who are literally fighting for their lives,” Mr. Soliman said.
Mr. Menendez’s political career was thrown into limbo in 2015 when federal authorities charged him with corruption and bribery in connection to his relationship with Salomon Melgen, a Florida eye doctor and wealthy friend.
The saga ended late last year when a 12-member jury failed to reach a verdict on charges that he accepted gifts from Dr. Melgen while helping him avoid scrutiny by the federal government.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York went on to reappoint Mr. Menendez as ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in February.
Since then, he has used the post to demand the Trump administration to take a harder stance against Russia and criticized the president’s actions on North Korea, while applauding the administration’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
The Senate ethics committee, after its own probe, did admonish Mr. Menendez, saying he knowingly accepted gifts, which they demanded he pay back, and said he did not disclose them as required under Senate rules and federal law.
Mr. Hugin, who has vowed to spend tens of millions of dollars from his personal fortune on the race, has pounced on the panel’s findings.
“It is unanimous — Democrat and Republican Senators found that Bob Menendez broke federal law,” the narrator says in a Hugin campaign ad. “Menendez illegally accepted private plane travel, luxury Caribbean vacations and a trip to a fancy Paris Hotel.”
Campaign finance reports show that Mr. Menendez had raised $5.1 million for his re-election bid through the middle of May and had $5.6 million cash on hand.
Mr. Hugin had raised $8.1 million, including a $7.5 million out of his own pocket, and had $4.4 million cash on hand.
At the very least, the GOP says, Democrats are going to have to invest money into the race that they would rather spend defending incumbents in red states.