Bob Menendez an Unexpected Variable in 2018 Senate Fight

Senator Robert Menendez in Washington, D.C. last year calling for a Smithsonian Museum centered on the experiences of the American Latino ( source )

Senator Robert Menendez in Washington, D.C. last year calling for a Smithsonian Museum centered on the experiences of the American Latino (source)

Republicans in the Lone Star State continue to be shocked by polls showing Beto O’Rourke is tied, or close behind, incumbent GOP Senator Ted Cruz. Democrats across the country, however, have their own reasons to be worried.

In New Jersey, Senator Bob Menendez is not faring well following his mistrial in November of 2017. Menendez was indicted by the Justice Department following allegations that he asked State Department officials to enforce a port-security contract that would benefit Menendez’s donor and friend, Salomon Melgen. Menendez is also accused of having accepted bribes from Melgen, including rounds of gold and stays at a resort in the Dominican Republic. He failed to report several of these monetary gifts and excursions on his financial disclosure forms.

Despite his mistrial, Menendez decided to run for reelection in 2018. Elected Democrats across the state of New Jersey quickly fell in line behind his decision. Senator Cory Booker and then governor-elect Phil Murphy both endorsed Menendez. Despite the endorsements of the party establishment, Menendez only garnered two-thirds of the primary vote against an opponent who reported spending no money on the race.

Though Menendez has held his seat since 2006, he could be in trouble. In the fourth quarter of 2017, the Garden State’s senior senator saw his favorability ratings fall by seven points. Additionally, polls have tightened in recent weeks. A Stockton University poll released on October 1st showed challenger Bob Hugin within two points of Menendez (with a four point margin of error).

Bob Hugin ( source )

Bob Hugin (source)

Hugin, a multimillionaire and pharmacy executive, brands himself as outside of the traditional Republican mold. This tactic is necessary in deep-blue New Jersey, especially in what is looking to be a wave year for Democrats. Hugin advocates for legal abortion and gay marriage, opposes the Trump administration policy of family separation and supports a path to citizenship for some undocumented immigrants. Despite some differences from Trump and the GOP establishment, Hugin calls himself a fiscal conservative.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee put out a $117K adbuy on behalf of Menendez. Despite DSCC help, Hugin is outspending Menendez to the tune of $5 million as of June 2018. Menendez’s shaky situation is causing headaches for Democrats in the runup to the midterms as they seek to make gains in the upper chamber of Congress. Ten Democratic Senators are up for reelection in states that Donald Trump won in the 2016 election, making DSCC money especially valuable this cycle.

The Democratic path to victory lies in defending the ten seats aforementioned and gaining at least two other seats. The most likely opportunities the Democrats have to win lie in Arizona and Nevada. In Nevada, Rep. Jacky Rosen is facing off against incumbent Senator Dean Heller. The race in Arizona pits Rep. Kyrsten Sinema against Rep. Martha McSally. Both races look promising, with Rosen and Sinema leading slightly in polls. However, the path is extremely narrow. If Democrats lose any of the ten aforementioned seats (as is looking likely in Indiana, Missouri, and North Dakota,) they have to hold out hope for victories in either Tennessee or Texas, both of which are heavily conservative. If Menendez fails in November, Democrats have very little chance at regaining control of the Senate.

Luckily for Menendez, President Donald Trump’s unpopularity, combined with the possibility of a Democratic wave year, might be just enough to insulate him from his well-funded challenger. Otherwise, both the Democrats and the Republicans may be looking at upsets in two of their biggest strongholds.