Menendez's Grip on Senate Seat Loosens With Punishing N.J. Vote

(Bloomberg) -- No one expected Lisa McCormick to win New Jersey’s Democratic U.S. Senate primary over incumbent Bob Menendez. But she did deliver a warning to the two-term senator and party officials.

McCormick, publisher of a weekly newspaper and community news website in Rahway, was an underfunded political unknown yet managed to draw 38 percent of the vote Tuesday in a contest against a heavily favored, party-backed candidate.

The narrower-than-expected margin of Menendez’s win suggests that some Democratic voters aren’t happy with the senator, whose federal corruption case was dropped by prosecutors after a mistrial in November. He was subsequently "severely admonished" by the Senate Ethics Committee for accepting gifts from a friend and supporter.

Still, Menendez, 64, from Paramus, remains the favorite in the November general election where he will face Republican Bob Hugin of Summit, the former Celgene Corp. chairman. New Jersey hasn’t sent a Republican to the U.S. Senate since Clifford Case in 1972, and a Monmouth University poll released last month found 53 percent of New Jersey voters would cast a ballot for Menendez, compared with 32 percent who picked Hugin.

Democratic Advantages

Democrats also hold New Jersey’s governor’s office and legislature, and 55 percent of voters chose Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election. The primary, though, showed that Democrats still have a challenge in rehabilitating the image of their candidate in what should be a safe seat while also defending vulnerable incumbents in other states more favorable to Republicans.

“When you look at all of the news that came out about Menendez during the primary, all of it was bad,” said Matt Hale, who teaches political science at Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey. “Most people recognized that he was likely to win but they wanted to send a message that you don’t get a totally free pass.”

Menendez’s campaign manager, Michael Soliman, said via email that though Hugin spent “millions of dollars on attack ads,” Menendez received 90,000 more votes than the Republican.

“We can’t allow Bob Hugin to go to Congress and cast a vote for Donald Trump against New Jersey values,” Soliman said.

Fundraising

McCormick, 49, raised just $5,000 for the race, according to Jim Devine, her campaign manager, boyfriend and business partner in CMD Media, publisher of njtoday.net, a local-news website. Inspired by Senators Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, McCormick set out almost two years ago as “a conscious decision to shun the normal political organizations around the state,” Devine said by telephone.

“It was not a fluke -- not people showing up just to vote against Menendez, because if it was those people probably would have just stayed home,” Devine said.

Menendez won 63 percent of the vote. He had $5.6 million on hand in his election account, according to federal campaign finance reports from May 16. He was unopposed in his last Senate primary, in 2012, and went on to defeat Republican Tom Kean Jr., a state senator and son of a well-regarded former New Jersey governor. Six years earlier, Menendez had scored 86 percent of the vote against his Democratic primary challenger.

Campaign Money

In November he will face Hugin, a 63-year-old former U.S. Marine and Trump donor and delegate who retired from Celgene in January. In May he had $4.5 million on hand, according to federal disclosure reports.

“The fact is, New Jerseyans are aware that their sitting senator was severely admonished,” Hugin spokeswoman Megan Piwowar said by telephone. “New Jerseyans are smart. They’re hard-working. They’re not going to just accept the status quo.”

Menendez’s legal trouble lasted almost three years and led some allies, including the law firm of Democrat Jim Florio, a former New Jersey governor and U.S. congressman, to donate at least $5 million to his defense fund.

“I don’t think the election shows that people are walking away from him,” Florio said by telephone. “What will happen is no one’s really explored his opponent’s record yet and the opponent has a real difficult problem with regard to the president.”

In television ads, Hugin has attacked Menendez’s friendship with Salomon Melgen, the South Florida eye doctor sentenced in February to 17 years in prison for $73 million in Medicare fraud. Menendez in 2015 was charged with accepting campaign donations, vacations and gifts from Melgen in exchange for political favors.

Menendez insisted he was innocent. A deadlocked jury led to a mistrial in Newark in November, and this year a federal judge dismissed all charges.

“There are a number of Democrats out there who are not happy with the baggage that surrounds Menendez,” Patrick Murphy, director of the Monmouth Poll, said by telephone. Still, he said, “the overriding factor is still Donald Trump when we get to November.”

Menendez most certainly will take on Hugin’s leadership at Celgene, which in 2017 paid $280 million to settle claims that it had marketed two cancer drugs for uses unapproved by the U.S. Federal Drug Administration. The Summit-based company denied any wrongdoing and was settling the federal whistle-blower complaint to “avoid the uncertainty, distraction, and expense of protracted litigation,” according to a statement it issued.

The company under Hugin also lobbied to block a generic replacement for Revlimid, its biggest-selling product.

Hale, the Seton Hall professor, said the November election will be particularly ugly.

"It’s going to be corruption versus the guy who tried to cheat cancer patients," Hale said. "Most people who voted for McCormick are going to come home when they realize who Bob Hugin is and how close he is to Trump."

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