NORTH BERGEN, N.J. — Without mentioning him by name, Sen. Robert Menendez got in a dig at his opponent.
Kicking off the 43rd annual Hispanic State Parade here Sunday, the New Jersey Democrat said he was happy to be here — “not for the first time, as some people are.”
And then came the isolated chants: “Hugin, Hugin!”
Republican Senate nominee Bob Hugin and his staff had come up to the starting line of the parade that Menendez was supposed to lead. Wearing their blue “Send in a Marine” T-shirts and waving a giant Cuban flag, Hugin’s crew stood face to face with the local Marine Corps ROTC midshipmen holding a large banner for the senator.
Police eventually told Hugin’s team they’d have to return to their float farther back in the parade lineup. Back they went without a fight.
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Still, that there’s any standoff in a Senate race in deep-blue New Jersey is surprising. In less than a month, voters here have to decide between a federally indicted senator who’s been in Congress since 1993 and a self-funding pharmaceutical executive who was a delegate for President Donald Trump in 2016. By the end of June, Hugin had put more than $15 million of his own money into the race, and he’s been pummeling Menendez on the airwaves.
“I’m just here to say I have your back,” Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy said, putting an arm around Menendez in front of local TV cameras. The incumbent has the support of most of the state’s powerful Democratic establishment including the Garden State’s junior senator, Cory Booker.
While Menendez leads in the polls, the concern for Democrats is that he is in rougher shape than a two-term incumbent should be and is therefore costing national party resources in a state Hillary Clinton carried by 14 points. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has invested nearly $1 million to boost Menendez, most recently in a $400,000 coordinated TV buy.
Two Bobs from Union City
Leading the parade in his official capacity as senator, and not as a candidate, Menendez marched the fifty blocks like someone who already has the job.
He stuck to the middle of the road, with Democratic Rep. Albio Sires at his side, while supporters ran into the street to greet him. Farther back, Hugin was working up a sweat running from one side of the street to the other. On the float behind him, a staffer was shouting, “No more corruption, no more corruption!” in English and Spanish.
Both Menendez and Hugin grew up in Union City, where the parade ended. But this heavily Hispanic county is Menendez turf and an important base for Democrats in the state.
Seeing Hugin, his float and campaign bus coming her way, one spectator held up her hands trying to shoo them off. “My vote is for Robert Menendez,” she said. “He is Cuba.”
Menendez may be liked in this area, but recent polling has revealed his unpopularity statewide. In a Farleigh Dickinson survey — which found him leading Hugin 43 percent to 37 percent — more than half of likely voters viewed him unfavorably. In a Quinnipiac survey that gave him a healthier 53 percent to 42 percent edge among likely voters, 59 percent said he was not honest.
The question is whether that matters, or whether New Jersey’s voters will hold their noses and vote for the candidate who they think still sides with them on the issues. The recent Supreme Court fight over its newest justice has given Menendez a fresh point of contrast between him and Hugin, who says he would have voted to confirm Brett Kavanaugh. (Menendez and all but one Democrat voted against confirmation.)
Out in the leafy suburbs of Morris County, Hugin spent Saturday greeting people at Bottle Hill Day, an annual fall festival in downtown Madison.
A resident of nearby Summit, which is on the same New York City commuter line, Hugin seemed at home here, stopping to talk to veterans and parents.
Madison backed Clinton in 2016, but as part of retiring GOP Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen’s 11th District, this area has typically been a Republican stronghold. Still, for all the GOP voters who wished him luck, or the restaurant owner who pulled out his cellphone to show him the “Trump 2020” photo on his lock screen, Hugin got some tough questions, too.
“Sen. Menendez should be in prison,” Chatham resident Chris Reel told Hugin. “But I have two issues: Roe v. Wade and gun control.”
The 69-year-old independent was pleased to hear Hugin supports abortion rights. But he wasn’t satisfied on the second subject. Hugin evaded Reel’s question about supporting a federal assault weapons ban, which raised a larger concern for Reel.
“Every ad is negative, negative, negative. I hear nothing about where he stands,” Reel said.
Mark Spinner, a 64-year-old also from Chatham, is a registered Democrat but says he votes like an independent. He knows Menendez is also running negative ads now — mostly about Hugin’s tenure at the drug company Celgene — but he called Hugin’s office to complain about the negative ads coming from his campaign.
He said he never got a response. So he confronted Hugin on Saturday about the tenor of his ads, when the candidate approached the booth where Spinner was working.
“I agree that they’re not positive, but they’re factual,” Hugin replied.
Hugin argued his mission had to be to educate New Jersey voters about Menendez. He told Spinner that before he started his campaign, many voters didn’t even know their senator had been indicted.
“My life has been about producing results,” the Republican said, trying to contrast his biography to the senator’s ethics quandaries. “It’s embarrassing for our state.” (The Department of Justice dismissed charges against Menendez earlier this year.)
But Spinner wanted to know how Hugin aligned with him on issues — such as the environment, for example. Hugin, who unlike many in the national party believes in climate change, told Spinner he was a fisherman.
After the nominee had moved on, Spinner lauded him for not brushing him off. But he didn’t sound convinced.
“What Menendez did was wrong. I’m not even going to try to defend him,” he said. “But he has done good things for working people and the environment.”