U.S. Senate race is close – but NJ has been here before
New Jersey’s U.S. Senate races have been here before: opinion polls closer than expected in the summer, raising Republican hopes that a winless streak dating to 1972 can finally be reversed.
In past years, Lucy always pulled away the football before Charlie Brown could kick it, to borrow a Peanuts analogy. The electorate always reverted to form, with Democrats now having won 15 straight Senate races in the state.
Plus, Democrats may be holding a trump card that can make that happen – or more specifically, the President Donald Trump card. He’s a motivating force for his opponents as much as for his supporters, and in New Jersey there are more than 915,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans.
“I would expect that Sen. Menendez will make the case that supporting Bob Hugin is akin to giving President Trump the keys to the U.S. Senate,” said Montclair State University professor of political science and law Brigid Harrison.
The most recent polls show Menendez only leading Republican Bob Hugin by 2 to 4 points, down significantly from early polls that showed him ahead by around 20 points.
The incumbent Democrat’s job-approval ratings are slightly upside-down after he was admonished by the Senate Ethics Committee. He was tried last year on corruption charges, though the charges were dismissed after a hung jury that was reportedly leaning in favor of acquitting him.
On top of that, through the end of June, Hugin had put $15.5 million from his personal wealth into the race, nearly twice as much as Menendez has raised since 2013.
Seton Hall University political scientist Matthew hale thinks Menendez might want to launch his ad campaign sooner than the traditional Labor Day kickoff.
“But that being said, a lot of people are on vacation. A lot of people are down at the Shore and not paying attention to politics,” Hale said.
Menendez is no stranger to closer-than-expected polls – and surviving.
In 2006, when Menendez first ran for Senate, most polls in August and the first three weeks of September showed him trailing state Sen. Tom Kean Jr. He wound up winning by 9 points.
In 2012, when Menendez won re-election, an early solid lead over state Sen. Joseph Kyrillos had apparently dwindled into single digits by late spring and into the summer. That reversed in August and through the fall, and he won by nearly 20 points.
The race has started negative and isn’t likely to change. Hugin used to head the biopharmaceutical company Celgene, and Menendez’s side is portraying him as a prescription drug profiteer.
“It’s going to be outright filthy,” Hale said. “Both sides are going to do all they can to make the other side look like the devil. It’s going to just be a nasty, cut-throat campaign.”
“Since the early days of his political career, (Menendez) has always attracted a particular wrath. And has always withstood it,” Harrison said. “This race will be challenging, desperately dirty, and I think that the outcome is likely to remain the same.”
In addition to Menendez and Hugin, six third-party and independent candidates filed to run: Murray Sabrin of the Libertarian Party; Madelyn Hoffman of the Green Party; Hank Schroeder, whose slogan is Economic Growth; Natalie Rivera, whose slogan is For The People; Kevin Kimple, whose slogan is Make It Simple; and Tricia Flanagan, whose slogan is New Day NJ.