It’s become axiomatic in American politics that character no longer matters. (This of course presumes that “character” ever mattered in a political culture that had previously elevated Warren Harding, Andrew Jackson, and Ted Kennedy, among others.)
In 2016, both the Democrats and the Republicans nominated presidential candidates for whom characterological issues represented a political liability rather than an asset. The abandonment of “character” seemed to be further crystalized the following year in Alabama, where the Republican party threw its weight behind a candidate who had been accused—with corroborating evidence!—of preying on underage girls.
But Alabama was also where character made a comeback. The state ended up electing a Democratic senator, Doug Jones, who is ideologically far to the left of the electorate of the state he represents. It turned out that even a hard right electorate like Alabama’s couldn’t stomach electing Roy Moore—even he if he would have voted in a way that was more in sync with it than his opponent.
The feat may be repeated, in mirror image, in New Jersey this fall.
Bob Hugin, a former pharmaceutical executive whom I interviewed in his hometown last month, is mounting a Republican candidacy for the U.S. Senate this year. He’s more conservative than New Jersey; Hugin, for instance, donated $100,000 to a pro-Donald Trump super PAC in 2016, while the Republican nominee for president was on the way to taking only 41 percent of the vote in the Garden State. Hugin is aware of this discrepancy of course, so he has taken two-pronged strategy: (a) run on local issues, which are largely non-ideological, and (b) make the race a referendum on character.
He's well placed to do the latter because Hugin’s opponent is incumbent Democrat Bob Menendez. As I explained in my piece last month:
Menendez, 64, was indicted in 2015 for corruption. The charges stemmed from the senator’s relationship with a Florida doctor, Salomon Melgen, with whom he forged an unusually close friendship. Criminally close, the Department of Justice argued: Melgen lavished Menendez with gifts (trips on his private plane, free nights in swanky Paris hotels) and in turn, the senator allegedly did his bidding on a number of matters, including securing U.S. visas for Melgen’s many girlfriends and attempting to pressure the Health and Human Services Department to change its Medicare billing practices in a way that would help his friend. Late last year, Menendez’s trial ended in a hung jury—he was not exonerated—while Melgen was convicted of Medicare fraud and sentenced to 17 years in prison.
So the choice New Jerseyans face is whether to vote for a character-deficient liberal whom they agree with, or a straight-laced conservative with whom they don’t. Making the matter even more complicated is that control of the Senate could hang in the balance; the result of the race, like all competitive Senate elections this year, will have serious consequences.
It’s a genuinely tough choice—one New Jerseyans seem to be wrestling with themselves. A new poll out Wednesday morning found Menendez up 43 to 37 percent. But here’s the key data point: 18 percent of likely voters are still undecided.
The results in New Jersey may go a long way towards explaining what matters more to voters: ideology or integrity.