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A dilemma for New Jersey Democrats: an unpopular senator, or Trump’s GOP

In a state that hasn't elected a Republican to the Senate since 1972, the cloud over Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez has made for a much tougher race than usual, but Democrats believe President Trump will ultimately bring liberal voters to support the incumbent.

Senator Robert Menendez (D., N.J.), seen here at a news conference in 2017, faces a much tougher reelection this year after a corruption trial. The trial ended with a hung jury.
Senator Robert Menendez (D., N.J.), seen here at a news conference in 2017, faces a much tougher reelection this year after a corruption trial. The trial ended with a hung jury.Read moreRAYMOND W. HOLMAN JR / For the Inquirer

Call it The Most New Jersey Race Ever.

It features a defiant senator who just emerged from the cloud of a federal bribery indictment, and has every major New Jersey Democrat singing his praises anyway as he seeks another six-year term.

It has a challenge from a former pharmaceutical executive, representing one of the state's most prominent (but hardly popular) industries, pumping out millions of dollars' worth of attack ads to remind voters of the trial.

It even has Chris Christie making his presence felt, advising a Republican outside group chiming in with its own attacks.

But there's one thing different about this New Jersey Senate race: The Republican, Bob Hugin, might have a chance.

In a state that hasn't elected a Republican to the Senate since 1972, and where President Trump is hugely unpopular, the cloud over Sen. Bob Menendez and Hugin's big spending have made for a much tougher race than usual, one that will require a major effort for Democrats to win, according to operatives in both parties.

The prospect of a Menendez loss isn't just a potential embarrassment for Democrats — it could fatally undermine their slim hopes of taking control of the Senate. As it stands, they need a series of wins in conservative states like Indiana, Tennessee, and Arizona to have any chance of erasing the GOP's 51-49 seat advantage. Losing a deep-blue state would only make the climb steeper.

That reality has left some Democratic voters with a dilemma: Support a senator many have soured on, or potentially tilt a Senate seat to a president they loathe.

"When you're given a choice and both of those choices leave you feeling compromised … that's an abusive relationship right there," said Jay Lassiter, a liberal activist from Cherry Hill.

Similar qualms have popped up on liberal websites and on Twitter, where Democrats lament their options.

Some of the senator's supporters are openly acknowledging the frustration.

"I know there are some that are having difficulty voting for Senator Menendez. I get it, I really do," Marci Bandelli, cofounder of an activist group called Westfield 20/20, wrote Tuesday on a liberal blog.

But Bandelli said there was "no alternative," describing Hugin as a "rubber stamp" for Trump and praising Menendez as a key ally on everything from health care to gun violence.

Menendez was accused of accepting lavish gifts in exchange for political favors to a donor, Florida eye doctor Salomon Melgen. He denied there was a bribe or any special treatment, saying he and Melgen were longtime friends. His corruption trial ended with a hung jury, but he never disputed the key parts of the federal indictment: including accepting free trips on Melgen's jet and pushing the Obama administration to resolve the doctor's Medicare billing dispute — which defense attorneys said interested Menendez because it reflected broader policy flaws.

The Senate Ethics Committee "severely admonished" Menendez in April, saying his conduct "risked undermining the public's confidence in the Senate."

In some ways, the choice mirrors the one Republicans confronted in 2016, when many recoiled from Donald Trump but dreaded the possibility of a Hillary Clinton presidency more.

Eventually most Republicans chose Trump. Democrats are banking on a similar calculus. They believe disgust with Trump will bring home the state's strongly Democratic electorate.

"Trump is the gift that keeps giving," said Modia Butler, a Democratic political consultant based in Newark. He works in the same firm as Menendez's campaign chairman, Michael Soliman.

Trump's job approval among likely New Jersey voters stood at 35 percent approve, 62 percent disapprove in a Quinnipiac University poll released last week.

That same poll, however, showed that only 34 percent of likely voters view Menendez favorably, against 53 percent who see him negatively. Numbers like those make him one of the least popular senators in America.

Butler said Menendez has the benefit of a powerful New Jersey Democratic machine working hard on his behalf. Registered Democrats in the Garden State outnumber Republicans by 920,000 voters.

However, Democratic consultant Pat Politano raised concerns that there's no big mayor's race to motivate base voters in dense cities like Newark and Jersey City. Most of the party energy is focused on suburban U.S. House races.

"Will our urban base voters come out in sufficient numbers? Will suburban women who are definitely coming out to vote be able to look past the charges because they despise Trump?" Politano asked.

Republican strategist Phil Cox compared this election to 2009, when independents and "soft" Democrats abandoned Gov. Jon Corzine, helping to elect Chris Christie as governor.

"Politically, Menendez is a dead man walking," said Cox, chairman of Integrity NJ, a pro-Hugin political committee spending millions on television ads against the senator. Menendez "can't redefine his own image at this point. He's clearly focused on defining Hugin."

Some Democrats have worried that while Menendez scorches Hugin — accusing him of gouging cancer patients with high drug prices — he has done little to rehabilitate his own public standing.

The clearest sign of Menendez's eroding status with Democrats came in the June primary, when he won just 62 percent of the vote while running against an unknown challenger who spent nearly nothing.

Joan Young, a 75-year-old retiree from Gloucester Township in Camden County, was among those who cast a protest vote for Menendez's opponent, Lisa McCormick, saying she wanted to deliver a "slap on the wrist."

Young has voted for Republicans in the past — including former Gov. Christie Todd Whitman and Clifford Case, the last New Jersey Republican elected to the Senate — but calls Trump "amoral" and "the biggest con man who ever came down the pike."

So she'll be voting for Menendez in November, adding that she agrees with him on most policy issues. "We just don't have a system of checks and balances," she said.

But echoing concerns raised by Democratic officials, Young said she has seen more television ads "against Menendez than for him."

"That kind of worries me," she said.

A Menendez campaign spokesperson said they are confident of the senator's position, and that New Jerseyans will remember his record, including securing funding for Hurricane Sandy recovery, autism, and his support for the Affordable Care Act.

"He has an incredible record he's running on, he's going to be judged by the totality of who he is, and at the end of the day he's going to win with broad support from Dems and independents," said Steve Sandberg.

He argued that Hugin has avoided close scrutiny.

Hugin, in an interview Tuesday with the Inquirer editorial board, said New Jersey deserved a senator who would "represent our people with integrity and honor."

He notes that he breaks from Trump on some issues, including immigration, but he also donated to the president, and if he won, he would help join a likely GOP Senate majority that has backed Trump's priorities.

In a state where registered Democrats far outnumber Republicans, Quinnipiac found Menendez with an 11 percentage point lead. Other polls have suggested a tighter race.

Lassiter, the Cherry Hill activist, had openly advocated the party replace Menendez on the ballot but was struck by the backlash he got from fellow Democrats. They insisted that it was far more important to take the Senate and put a check on Trump.

And in the end Lassiter said he probably will vote for Menendez, despite his misgivings.