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Big money rolls in as GOP challenger pressures Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez for his traditionally safe seat in New Jersey

  • The money race for a traditionally safe Democratic U.S. Senate seat is heating up in New Jersey.
  • Incumbent Sen. Bob Menendez, a Democrat, raised $9 million as of the end of June. Former Celgene CEO Bob Hugin, his GOP opponent, has given more than $15 million to his own campaign.
  • Hugin has sought to neutralize Menendez's experience and political skill by largely funding his own campaign. Experts think that could give Hugin an edge as the race drags on.
Sen. Robert Menendez and Senatorial candidate Robert Hugin. 
Getty Images | CNBC
Sen. Robert Menendez and Senatorial candidate Robert Hugin. 

The money race for a traditionally safe Democratic U.S. Senate seat is heating up in New Jersey as incumbent Sen. Bob Menendez tries to fend off a challenge from a Republican former pharmaceutical executive who is pushing himself as a centrist alternative.

Menendez, who faced federal corruption charges that were eventually dropped, raised $9 million as of the end of June. Former Celgene CEO Bob Hugin, his GOP opponent, has given more than $15 million to his own campaign, including $8 million during the last quarter.

Now outside money is getting into the fight. Pro-Hugin super PAC Integrity NJ, which has ties to Republican former N.J. Gov. Chris Christie, raised more than $2 million to back Hugin.

Likewise, a pro-Menendez super PAC, Patients for Affordable Drug Action, launched a $1.5 million campaign to attack the Republican’s record at Celgene.

The developments come as Democrats look to at least hold the line in the Senate, where the GOP holds a slim 51-49 majority. There are Democratic senators fighting for re-election in 10 states President Donald Trump won in 2016. A Menendez loss would be devastating to the party. A New Jersey Republican hasn’t won election to the U.S. Senate since 1972.

While Menendez is known for rough-and-tumble brand of politics honed during his years in densely populated Hudson County, Hugin has sought to neutralize that by largely funding his own campaign. A lack of polling has made the state of the race uncertain, though, and experts think that could give Hugin an edge as the campaign drags on.

Ashley Koning, the director of the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling at Rutgers University, told CNBC that the race will grow more competitive as Hugin continues to target Menendez’s ethical issues through personally financing ads and receiving money from super PACs to run ads.

“Money is obviously a big part of any campaign, and here Hugin has the advantage of self-funding,” she said.

Menendez was indicted in 2015 on corruption charges, but jurors failed to reach a verdict late last year, and prosecutors eventually dropped the case. The Senate Ethics Committee, however, admonished Menendez.

Integrity NJ, the pro-Hugin super PAC, is following the Republican candidate’s lead by targeting Menendez’s past.

“The fact is Bob Menendez has proven himself unfit for office. He is the first sitting U.S. senator to face bribery charges in nearly 40 years and was severely admonished by his own colleagues on the Senate Ethics Committee,” said the PAC’s executive director, Pete Sheridan.

Menendez’s side is firing back by attacking Hugin’s record as Celgene CEO, as well as his connections to Christie, the unpopular former governor. The company paid $280 million in July 2017 to settle federal charges that it marketed Revlimid and another cancer drug for unapproved uses, and that it submitted false claims to Medicare.

“It’s hardly surprising that Chris Christie would want to repay Bob Hugin for all his support,” said Menendez spokesman Steven Sandberg. “This is a SuperPAC run by Christie associates on behalf of Bob Hugin, a Christie supporter. Bob Hugin’s record is all too clear -- he is pro-Trump, he is pro-Christie and he is a greedy drug company CEO who ripped off cancer patients. Even Bob Hugin doesn’t have enough money to make all that go away.”

As the rhetoric and fundraising in the race ramp up, it’s still unclear where voters stand. Real Clear Politics’ polling average for the race gives Menendez a nine-point edge, but only shows three polls dating back to April. Hugin spokeswoman Megan Piwowar said that internal polling data show a closer race than nine points.

The most recent third-party poll, from Gravis earlier this month, shows Menendez with a tiny two-point edge, but there are red flags, such as its small, 513-respondent sample size, according to Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute. Also, the poll shows 47 percent approval for Trump in the state, which “does not reflect reality in New Jersey,” he said. Trump’s Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, won the state by double digits in 2016.

“I think we need a reliable poll in this race in where this stands. There’s no question Menendez has baggage and the electorate views him negatively,” Murray said. “The question is if this is enough overcome distaste for Donald Trump.”