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New Jersey holds its primary elections Tuesday, but Republican Senate candidate Bob Hugin is already looking toward November.
The former CEO of drugmaker Celgene has unleashed a flurry of television ads attacking incumbent Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez for corruption charges that ended in a mistrial last year. Hugin, 63, aims to make the blue-state Senate race largely a referendum on the two-term senator's conduct.
The political newcomer has already piled $7.5 million of his own money into his campaign to blanket the airwaves with his message. As Hugin entered the Peppercorn diner in his hometown of Summit, New Jersey, last week, a waitress quickly exclaimed that she recognized him from the TV ads. His media campaign even followed him into the restaurant. A Hugin campaign ad questioning Menendez's moral fitness for office came on a TV there while the GOP candidate spoke to CNBC.
Seeking to break through in a state friendly to Democrats, Hugin has tried to spread his message far and wide. In an interview, Hugin cast himself as a "different kind of Republican" who would promote bipartisan health-care policy and could differ with President Donald Trump on issues such as immigration. He says he ran partly on a commitment to give back to New Jersey, and is undaunted by the challenge of facing a Democratic incumbent in a blue state during a year in which Democratic voter turnout is expected to be strong.
"We were originally morally outraged and offended, and if I didn't step in, who was going to step in to make sure that people in New Jersey had a choice? It's bad for democracy," Hugin said, arguing Menendez has a "character issue."
"So this wasn't my life's dream to do this, but I just felt both an opportunity and a responsibility to ensure the people of New Jersey have a choice about the direction of the state and the country," he added.
Both Hugin and Menendez face opponents in their Senate primaries Tuesday. The men are expected to win comfortably, however, and have already turned their attention to one another in what could become a nasty race. Already, Hugin and national GOP groups have relentlessly targeted Menendez for his ethics issues, while the senator's campaign has hit Hugin for Celgene's cancer drug price hikes while he led the company.
A competitive race in New Jersey, which has not elected a Republican to the Senate in more than three decades, would have major implications for control of the Senate and the agenda the chamber pursues next year. Democrats and independents who caucus with them are defending 26 Senate seats in November, most of those in states with a more Republican tilt than New Jersey. The GOP aims to keep or expand its 51 to 49 seat majority in the chamber.
The New Jersey race as of now appears to favor Menendez, 64. Nonpartisan election analysis sites Cook Political Report and Sabato's Crystal Ball both rate the seat as "likely" Democratic, while another nonpartisan site, Inside Elections, considers it "solid" Democratic.
Quinnipiac University and Monmouth University polls in March and April found advantages of 17 and 21 percentage points, respectively, for Menendez over Hugin. A separate Fairleigh Dickinson University survey taken last month raised eyebrows, though. It showed only a 4 percentage point edge for Menendez, with 46 percent of registered voters undecided.
The Fairleigh Dickinson pollsters attributed the results largely to the allegations that Menendez accepted undisclosed gifts from wealthy Florida eye doctor Salomon Melgen in exchange for official favors. The senator emerged from his trial legally unscathed, but got bipartisan admonishment in April from the Senate Ethics Committee, which ordered him to pay back the gifts. Melgen was separately sentenced to 17 years in prison after getting convicted of defrauding Medicare of $73 million.
Menendez's lawyers have disputed the ethics panel's findings and stressed that the Justice Department dropped charges against him. In responding to Hugin's criticism, Menendez's campaign highlighted the senator's focus on policy.
"Senator Menendez is focused on the issues that matter most to our state, like making sure that every New Jerseyan has access to affordable, quality healthcare, preventing more senseless gun violence, and growing our economy in a way that creates more opportunity for everyone, not just the wealthy," Menendez campaign chairman Michael Soliman said in a statement. "This is what matters to people; they want to know how their lives are going to get better and that's what Senator Menendez is working to deliver."
Soliman also slammed Hugin's record at Celgene, saying the GOP candidate "spent his career there fighting competition from generic manufacturers" to raise prices on the company's cancer drugs. As of December, Celgene had raised the price of cancer drug Revlimid by 88 percent over seven years, according to Bloomberg.
Soliman noted that Trump's Food and Drug Administration highlighted Celgene as one of the companies hindering the possible production of cheaper generic drug alternatives. In previewing the list of companies released by the FDA last month, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said, "we know that certain brand-name manufacturers are abusing the system by blocking access to samples and hiding behind FDA's rules when they do it."
Hugin has taken pride in his nearly two-decade tenure at the Summit-based Celgene, which ended in February. He has run partly on a record of creating jobs in the state, which he called a "hard thing to do." When Hugin left the company this year, Celgene said it had 7,500 employees, up from 2,500 in 2010.
The Republican candidate said Celgene has "created value" and "walked the walk" by putting nearly 40 percent of its revenue back into research and development of new products. He also downplayed Menendez's criticism because the senator's campaign has taken contributions from the pharmaceutical industry, including $2,500 from Celgene's political action committee last year.
Asked whether he had any role in deciding whether the money went to Menendez, Hugin said he was "not aware" that he had attended a Celgene PAC meeting.
Hugin has not only promoted his role in helping to grow a New Jersey-based company but also highlighted his roots in the state. The Republican candidate grew up in Union City, New Jersey, and says he became the first person in his family to attend college when he went to Princeton University. He later served seven years of active duty in the U.S. Marine Corps before working at J.P. Morgan and Celgene.
His description of humble beginnings in New Jersey echoes Menendez, a son of Cuban immigrants who also grew up in Union City.
At Celgene, Hugin accumulated the wealth he has loaned liberally to his campaign. Tax returns show he and his wife earned nearly $34 million in 2015 and 2016 combined, according to Politico.
At the company, Hugin also gained experience he thinks will help him be a senator. He believes he can become an effective voice in Congress on health care, in particular.
"I think it's an area where I can be a very positive force for ensuring that we have the kind of substantive dialogue on a bipartisan basis to deal with these issue. That's what the American people want," Hugin said.
Health care is not the only area where Hugin believes he can help to strike a balance between the major parties. He also highlighted immigration, where he echoed many centrist Republicans in Congress by calling for comprehensive immigration reform that includes a pathway to citizenship for young immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children.
Menendez is part of a bipartisan group of senators seeking legal protections for so-called Dreamers without the tight restrictions on legal immigration supported by Trump. As of last year, New Jersey had the ninth-highest number of individuals protected from deportation by the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program among states, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
The candidate could distance himself from Republican leaders on a few other issues, such as state and local tax deductions and abortion. He opposes the GOP's $10,000 cap on the deductions, which are popular in his state. He also identifies as pro-choice.
Ahead of the primary, Hugin said his campaign has received more interest from outside donors. His campaign expects to get more contributions from individuals once the general election race starts.
As of mid-May, his campaign had received about $8.1 million, with $7.5 million of that coming from Hugin's loans.
Hugin said he will spend as much money on the race as he feels he needs to get out his message that New Jersey deserves better than Menendez. He hopes to counter the Democratic advantage in the state in part by inundating voters with media buys.
His campaign says he will likely spend a "very significant" amount more of his own wealth during the race, without giving a specific dollar amount. Like Trump and other self-funding candidates before him, Hugin argues his personal spending on the races means he will not owe big donors any favors.
"I'm not going to be beholden to any special interests," he said.