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‘Everybody’s nervous’: Sen. Bob Menendez tries to stave off Democratic disaster

A loss in New Jersey would almost certainly eliminate Democrats' already-slim chances of retaking the Senate in a year when the party is defending seats in 10 states Trump won in 2016.

Sen. Bob Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, holds a reelection campaign rally with fellow Sen. Cory Booker at the Mt. Zion AME Church in New Brunswick, NJ, on Oct. 30.
Sen. Bob Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, holds a reelection campaign rally with fellow Sen. Cory Booker at the Mt. Zion AME Church in New Brunswick, NJ, on Oct. 30.Read moreBEVERLY SCHAEFER / For the Inquirer

EAST ORANGE, N.J. —  Sen. Cory A. Booker was reminiscing about the historic election of Barack Obama as the first black president in 2008, and the crowd of supporters here was enjoying the trip down memory lane. But, the New Jersey Democrat wanted to know, did they remember what happened a year later?

An unpopular incumbent Democrat, Gov. Jon Corzine, was up for reelection. There was low turnout in urban areas like this city northwest of Newark, and the Republican won. "Y'all might not remember his name, but his name's Chris Christie," Booker told the packed crowd of senior citizens Tuesday night.

That Booker was even there — for his second of three rallies that day campaigning with fellow Sen. Bob Menendez — was a sign that Menendez could lose to Republican Bob Hugin. Privately, some Democrats say they wouldn't be surprised by that outcome. The landscape so worried party leaders in Washington that their outside group, Senate Majority PAC, moved to rescue the embattled senator with $7 million in airtime on television since mid-October.

"They're desperate," Hugin told supporters in Jackson, Ocean County, on Thursday night, boasting that he'd forced national Democrats to divert resources from traditional battleground states like Florida. "They know they have a losing candidate."

Menendez is leading in public polls in his bid for a third term, but the baggage he carries from a years-long pursuit by the FBI has put the state in play even as he tells voters the stakes in November have "never mattered more."

Although the senator survived a federal corruption trial last year, the allegations left him wounded. In a deep-blue state, polls show Menendez is less popular than President Trump. And Hugin, a former pharmaceutical executive, has spent $30 million of his personal fortune to help make the race competitive in a state that hasn't elected a Republican to the Senate since 1972.

A loss in New Jersey would almost certainly eliminate Democrats' already-slim chances of retaking the Senate in a year when the party is defending seats in 10 states Trump won in 2016.

It would represent a rebuke not just to Menendez but also to the Garden State's Democratic leaders, who immediately coalesced around the senator after his trial ended in a hung jury last November.

"Everybody's nervous," said one New Jersey Democrat.

Menendez has framed the election as a referendum on Trump, warning of the president's efforts to gut the Affordable Care Act and raising the prospect that Republicans will try to pay for their tax cuts by overhauling entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security.

In an interview, Hugin said Trump's referendum will come when he stands for reelection in 2020.

"Bob Menendez's referendum is in 2018," he said. "He's got to be held accountable."

Menendez has several advantages. Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans in New Jersey by about 920,000 voters. Polling by Monmouth University shows that despite voters' personal distaste for Menendez, their views of Trump are a bigger factor in casting their votes in the Senate race.

>> READ MORE: Is this the year young people make history by actually voting? They will if just 1 in 4 cast ballots.

And opposition to Trump has fueled energy in suburban congressional districts where Democrats are competing for at least four GOP-held seats. That could help Menendez atop the ticket.

Democrats say Trump's incendiary remarks on immigration in the campaign's final days — saying he wants to end birthright citizenship and ordering troops to the southern border to engage the caravan of migrants approaching from Central America — will hurt Republicans among college-educated voters in suburban districts. But the rhetoric could energize Republicans in Ocean and Monmouth Counties, which delivered huge margins for Christie in 2009.

Some Democrats say they've been underwhelmed by Menendez's campaign, especially compared with the hard-hitting TV ads from Hugin. Some — debunked by fact-checkers — mention unsubstantiated allegations that the senator had sex with underage prostitutes.

In television ads and on the stump, Menendez and his allies have tried to make the case that a vote for Hugin is a vote for the Trump agenda.

Hugin, 64, a Marine Corps veteran and the former CEO of the biotech firm Celgene, was the Trump campaign's finance chairman in New Jersey and served as a Trump delegate at the Republican National Convention. He also donated more than $100,000 to pro-Trump groups during the 2016 campaign.

Aware of the danger of being perceived as close to Trump in a state Hillary Clinton won by 14 percentage points, Hugin addressed the dynamic head-on in a new TV ad. "I often hear, 'Will you stand up to President Trump?' " Hugin says in the ad. Speaking directly to the camera, he says, "The answer is yes."

He says he favors abortion rights and a path to citizenship for some undocumented immigrants. He wrote on Twitter that Trump was wrong to say he'd end birthright citizenship, which is enshrined in the 14th Amendment.

While Hugin campaigns as a centrist with an inclusive message, Menendez's allies are trying to mobilize the Democratic base by pointing to controversial GOP tactics in other states. And they're portraying Hugin as a greedy CEO who repeatedly raised the price of a life-sustaining cancer drug "simply for profit."

Speaking in East Orange to the crowd of mostly black senior citizens, Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver pointed to gubernatorial races in Georgia, where a fight over voting rights has attracted national headlines, and Florida, where the Republican nominee has used racially charged campaign language against his black Democratic opponent, Andrew Gillum.

"Let me tell you something I know about Trump Republicans: They will do anything to win," Oliver said. "We can't let them play those tricks in New Jersey."

For his part, Menendez, 64, is highlighting his personal story as the son of Cuban immigrants who grew up in a Union City tenement and rose to become the highest-ranking Hispanic member of Congress. For his family, he said, Social Security and Medicare were not abstract ideas.

But the election, he said in East Orange, "is really not about me."

"It's about you," Menendez said. "It's about our community. It's about our country, and where we're going."

>> READ MORE: Anxious, angry, divided, voters go to the polls for a midterm of rare intensity

The message resonated with voters like David Snead, an 84-year-old retiree in East Orange. He said he had been concerned about the corruption allegations but described Menendez as the "better of two evils."

Trump, he said, is "dividing the country much too much, and there's no one down there to check him."

Hugin charges that Menendez abandoned his roots, pointing to the bribery allegations. Prosecutors accused the senator of accepting lavish gifts from a Florida doctor — including free trips on a private jet and a three-night stay at an upscale Paris hotel — in exchange for advancing the doctor's personal and financial interests. Menendez denied wrongdoing and said he and the doctor, Salomon Melgen, were friends.

A judge declared a mistrial and later acquitted Menendez of some of the charges. Prosecutors then dropped the case, but the Senate Ethics Committee reprimanded the senator for conduct it said "risked undermining the public's confidence in the Senate."

"We take a lot of crap, being from New Jersey. But he's done way above and beyond what's acceptable," Hugin said at the rally Thursday, adding that Menendez had abused the power of his office and "embarrassed" the state.

Supporters burst into applause when Hugin said that his internal polling gave him a 2 percentage point lead. The campaign declined to provide the poll.

One big question is whether suburban voters supporting Democratic House candidates like Andy Kim in New Jersey's Third District will be able to overlook Menendez's ethical baggage.

Interviews Thursday with voters on East Main Street in Moorestown illustrated the dynamic. One woman, a registered Republican, called Trump "atrocious" and said she was embarrassed by her party. She said she would vote for Kim but called Menendez a "crook."

Neil Arot, 60, who runs a barbershop downtown, said he'd be voting against every incumbent. "It's just time to make a change," he said.

Arot recalled being scolded by his liberal friends for "wasting" his vote in 2016 by voting for Gary Johnson, the Libertarian candidate. Clinton was never going to lose New Jersey, he'd shoot back.

This year, Democrats aren't as confident about the candidate at the top of their ticket.