A Senate upset in the making in New Jersey?

It’s not as if the Democrats have an easy hill to climb if their hopes of taking the Senate majority are to be realized, but the math is clear as can be. They need to flip two of the nine Republican-held seats, but at the same time, they have to hold on to every single one of the 25 seats currently occupied by Democrats or independents who caucus with them. Every loss they sustain translates to one more red seat that has to be flipped. But what if they lose one of their “safe” seats?

That’s the question George Will is asking this week and he’s talking about New Jersey. In the Garden State, Bob Menendez is up for reelection. That would be the same Bob Menendez who barely escaped conviction in a federal court not too long ago. It’s also the same Bob Menendez who was censured by his colleagues in the upper chamber. He’s in a race against a veteran and businessman named Robert Hugin who has much to recommend him. As Will sees it, this “safe seat” may, just possibly, be in play. (Washington Post)

New Jersey Democrats — they outnumber Republicans by nearly 900,000 — powered Menendez to a 19-point victory six years ago. In last month’s primary, however, his opponent won 37.8 percent of the vote while spending next to nothing — not enough to require filing any financial statement. In October he was underwater, 19 percent to 59 percent, in a poll about whether he deserves reelection. Today, polls show Menendez with small single-digit leads, but Hugin’s brass-knuckle ads are saying things such as this: “[President Barack] Obama’s Justice Department said [Menendez] belongs in jail.” The department brought a 14-count felony corruption indictment, which resulted in a nearly three-month trial that did not convict Menendez. The government then decided against a new prosecution…

This election will test whether voters think that being a luridly indiscreet (this is a discreet way of describing Menendez’s behavior) senator is less objectionable than Hugin’s guilt of association with the pharmaceutical industry whose products help to give millions of people sufficient longevity and vitality to nurse grievances against the products’ prices.

In a more sane world, George Will would be making an excellent point. Hugin is a lifelong Jersey resident from Union City. He’s got an inspirational story, being the first of his family to earn a college degree. He went on to serve in the Marines for more than a dozen years and raised two sons who followed in his military footsteps. Returning to civilian life he worked his way up to become the head of a pharmaceutical company.

On the other side of the ballot is Menendez. As mentioned above, his record is dominated by the findings of the unanimous, bipartisan ethics committee, which sent him a letter saying he was “severely admonished” and had “brought discredit upon the Senate,” going on to list his many sins. The only serious knocks the Democrats have come up with against Hugin are his support for the tax cuts (which limited SALT deductions for the state’s highest income residents) and his work in the pharmaceutical industry (which is now apparently a sin in liberal circles).

That’s the choice facing New Jersey voters, who register with the Democratic Party at a rate which leaves Republicans in the dust. Given their respective records, Menendez shouldn’t even be in the running. But are the voters of his state more interested in the best candidate or simply filling the seat with someone who will vote with the Democrats? Will they hold their noses simply to spite the GOP in Washington or elect the better candidate?

Color me skeptical. I’d like to think that Will is correct and this race might fall Hugin’s way, but in the political climate of 2018, I would be completely floored if New Jersey elected their first Republican Senator since the early 70s. All politics used to be local, but in the case of close Senate races this year, all politics revolves around the national collective. And if Menendez somehow carves a laterigrade trail to another six years in office, that fact will be more clear in Jersey than any other state.