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GOP Targets N.J. Sen. Menendez, Who's Dogged By Ethics Questions


Democrats have a slender path to taking the U.S. Senate this fall. They'd need to pick up two seats to gain a majority. But they also have to defend plenty of seats, including one in New Jersey, where incumbent Democrat Bob Menendez is facing fresh attacks about his federal corruption trial last year.

Joe Hernandez from member station WHYY reports.

JOE HERNANDEZ, BYLINE: Menendez was fired up as he spoke to a crowd in Princeton, N.J., last month. He's cast himself as a foil to President Trump, whose approval ratings in the Garden State are in the 30s.


BOB MENENDEZ: New Jerseyans don't need someone who will stand with Donald Trump. They need someone who will stand up to Donald Trump.

HERNANDEZ: Contrast that with the Bob Menendez of 10 months earlier. Last November, he had just walked out of a federal courthouse in Newark a free man after a judge declared a mistrial in his corruption case.


MENENDEZ: To those New Jerseyans who gave me the benefit of the doubt, I thank you.

HERNANDEZ: Justice Department prosecutors had accused Menendez of taking gifts and trips from a wealthy friend in exchange for political favors. Menendez survived legal trouble, but he was officially admonished by the Senate. And his poll numbers in New Jersey took a hit. And it wasn't long after he announced he would run for re-election that attack ads like these started appearing.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Menendez was previously indicted by Obama's Justice Department for taking hundreds of thousands of dollars in improper gifts and campaign contributions as bribes.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: It's a disgrace. New Jersey deserves better than Bob Menendez.

HERNANDEZ: That ad comes from Menendez's opponent, Republican Bob Hugin, a wealthy businessman who's funding his own campaign. Hugin is a Marine veteran and a political newcomer who says New Jersey should be embarrassed by Menendez. Earlier this year, Hugin stepped down as the head of Celgene, a New Jersey-based pharmaceutical company. He touts Celgene as an example of a drug company that identified a patient need and satisfied it.


BOB HUGIN: Celgene has done amazing thing for cancer patients, turning multiple cancers from a terminal diagnosis to a chronic disease.

HERNANDEZ: But critics say Celgene is more like a poster child for high drug costs and shady marketing tactics. Menendez has seized on that issue to discredit Hugin.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Corporate greed looks like drug company CEO Bob Hugin. Bob Hugin said the more people need a drug, the more he should charge.

HERNANDEZ: Hugin is running as a moderate Republican. He supports abortion rights and gay marriage. He has also supported President Trump and donated tens of thousands of dollars to elect Trump in 2016. In a state where no Republican has been elected to the Senate since 1972, you might think Hugin's support for Trump would tank his chances at victory. In fact, two recent polls show Menendez in the lead.

But two other public polls have Menendez and Hugin in a dead heat, confirming what some Democrats had feared - that Menendez's corruption trial, even though it didn't end in a conviction, is turning off voters. Ben Dworkin runs the Rowan Institute for Public Policy & Citizenship.

BEN DWORKIN: If you're watching these ads, you'd think Bob Menendez was convicted and for some reason is not in jail.

HERNANDEZ: The question is which Bob Menendez Democratic voters will be thinking about when they show up to the polls, the one who skated on federal bribery charges or the one who will oppose President Donald Trump?

For NPR News, I'm Joe Hernandez.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLAP COTTON'S "MINORS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joe Hernandez
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