Republican Bob Hugin is the dark horse candidate running as a white knight against Democratic incumbent Sen. Bob Menendez in New Jersey. And it is working.
In what has been billed as the first reputable poll, analysts at Stockton University report that Menendez leads Hugin just 45 to 43 percent a matter of weeks before the November election. Of course, it wasn't supposed to be this way. New Jersey was considered a likely Democratic victory because, hey, it's Jersey.
“With a two-point lead falling within the poll’s margin of error, the Senate race at this point is up for grabs,” said Michael W. Klein, interim executive director of the William J. Hughes Center for public policy at Stockton University.
The unfavorable number tells the story of the comeback. Menendez was indicted three years ago on charges of bribery, fraud, and lying to federal prosecutors about his involvement in an immigration racket. He would provide visas for the foreign girlfriends of a donor who was committing massive fraud against Medicare, and that donor would reward him with rounds of golf at exclusive clubs, flights on private jets, and nights in Paris. That racket plus a reprimanding by the Senate Ethics Committee have left Menendez with an unfavorability rating of 54 percent.
Hugin knows that Menendez is unlikable because Menendez isn’t ethical. Two weeks ago, he told me it was the reason he got into the race in the first place.
“It’s summed up pretty nicely in the Senate Ethics Committee letter about him being guilty of violating federal law, abusing the power of his office, and disgracing the Senate,” Hugin explained during a lengthy phone interview. “It’s those things plus the arrogance that he could do whatever he wanted for himself or his friends from Florida.”
At a moment when more and more Republicans are getting indicted, Hugin is betting that good ethics can actually get him elected. He has released an impressive ethics pledge and promised to make ethics reform a central part of his time in Congress.
This has propelled the first time candidate and former pharmaceutical executive. He is viewed favorably by 34 percent of voters, according to the Stockton poll, and unfavorably by just 21 percent. Right now his only problem is name recognition. While 10 percent of voters are unfavorable with Menendez, a whopping 43 percent aren’t familiar with Hugin.
But Hugin is full of optimism with weeks to go. His internal polls have buoyed his spirits for some time now confirming what we wrote back in August, the sleeper Senate race in New Jersey is the race to watch. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was still hesitant at the time.
A McConnell-aligned super PAC called the Senate Leadership Fund put positive money on four different races back in September. Hugin didn’t get a check. But Hugin has been going it alone and doing pretty well for himself. Expect more money to flood into the state as Democrats try to keep an ethically challenged Menendez from going underwater.