Trump endorses Bob Menendez challenger Bob Hugin in NJ Senate race after Hugin distanced himself from the president

Key Points
  • President Donald Trump endorses Bob Menendez's Republican opponent Bob Hugin at the last minute. 
  • Hugin is trying to mount an upset of the Democratic incumbent, who is tailed by ethics issues. 
  • Hugin has tried to distance himself from the president throughout the campaign in the blue state. 
President Donald Trump shakes hands with Robert J. Hugin, Executive Chairman, Celgene Corporation, as he meets with representatives from PhRMA, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America in the Roosevelt Room of the White House on January 31, 2017 in Washington, DC. 
Pool | Getty Images

Republican U.S. Senate candidate Bob Hugin has spent his entire campaign in New Jersey distancing himself from President Donald Trump. A last-second endorsement from the president likely will not help his long-shot bid to unseat scandal-wracked Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez.

In an Election Day tweet, the president said Hugin, a former pharmaceutical executive, "would be a Great Senator from New Jersey." Trump added: "He has my complete and total Endorsement!"

Trump tweet: Bob Hugin, successful all of his life, would be a Great Senator from New Jersey. He has my complete and total Endorsement! Get out and Vote for Bob.

In a blue state where polling suggests concerns about a Republican Congress boosting Trump's agenda outweighs concerns about Menendez's ethics issues, the endorsement does not make much sense. In a statement responding to Trump's tweet, Menendez campaign spokesman Steven Sandberg responded simply: "Thank you."

New Jersey Democrats have in recent weeks cast Hugin as a Trump ally who would help the president's agenda in the Senate. Republicans have a 51-49 majority in the chamber, and a Hugin upset would all but assure GOP control for the next two years.

Hugin donated six figures to Trump's cause in 2016, was the finance chairman for Trump's New Jersey campaign and served on his presidential transition team. Yet, throughout his campaign, Hugin spent millions of dollars of his own money on ads that not only hammered Menendez for ethics charges, but also cast the former Celgene CEO as an independent-minded candidate who would not pay heed to party when making decisions.

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"I will go to Washington to represent all New Jerseyans and work with everyone, no matter what party, to reform healthcare, reduce taxes and ensure New Jersey gets our fair share for the huge amount of taxes we send to Washington every year," Hugin said in a campaign statement last week while touting an endorsement from a Democratic community leader.

The Hugin campaign did not immediately respond to a request to comment on Trump's endorsement. It is unclear whether the campaign helped to plan Trump's tweet as part of its strategy.

Concerns about the incumbent Democrat's ethics led to a closer-than-expected Senate race in New Jersey, a blue state where the party should have benefited this year from a favorable environment. Menendez faced charges related to accusations of giving political favors in exchange for gifts. The charges ended in a mistrial, but Menendez was "severely admonished" by the Senate Ethics Committee earlier this year.

Menendez has pulled away from Hugin in the race's final stretch, with help from Democratic outside groups who injected money to boost his campaign, according to polls. Anti-Trump views in New Jersey likely helped the senator.

More than half, or 56 percent, of likely voters say their views about Trump matter more when casting their vote this year, while 31 percent say their feelings on Menendez play a bigger role, according to a Monmouth University poll released last month. Only 42 percent of likely New Jersey voters approve of the job the president is doing, while 55 percent disapprove, the survey found.

Trump's endorsement may not have much of an effect on the race this late, said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute. Still, he told CNBC that "our polling is pretty clear that a vote based on Trump is more likely to go to Menendez than to Hugin."