Analysts: Menendez still has edge despite ethics censure
WASHINGTON (AP) — New Jersey Democrat Bob Menendez seems in good shape to win a third term despite a harsh rebuke from fellow senators who say he violated chamber rules and federal law, according to political analysts and party colleagues.
The Senate ethics committee found that Menendez repeatedly accepted gifts of significant value, failed to report them and advanced the personal and business interests of the donor who provided the gifts.
The allegations were hardly new to most New Jersey voters. Menendez’s federal bribery trial last fall centered on those same accusations. It ended with a hung jury; prosecutors decided not to retry the case.
Whatever negatives were generated from the trial appear to be more than offset by the fact he has a “D″ next to his name in the Democratic stronghold, said Patrick Murray, director of the independent Monmouth University Polling Institute in New Jersey.
Monmouth’s polling this month showed Menendez with a 53 to 32 percent advantage over his likely Republican challenger in November, former Celgene executive Bob Hugin.
“They’re not happy with his behavior, but they seem to be willing to overlook it,” Murray said of New Jersey’s voters.
A poll from Quinnipiac University released in March showed a similar result, 49 percent for Menendez and 32 percent for Hugin.
The Senate committee’s findings certainly won’t help Menendez, Murray said, but “he has a long runway to put this behind him as long as no new allegations come out.”
There are, however, warning signs.
Menendez, 64, seems to be hovering around 50 percent in his head-to-head matchups with Hugin, even with the vast majority of voters not having enough information to form an opinion of the Republican.
Hugin, with much money at his disposal, could persuade most of those undecided voters to move his way. Hugin has lent his campaign $7.5 million so far and has said he’s willing to add substantially to that.
National Republicans also note from the Quinnipiac poll that 38 percent of New Jersey voters believe Menendez was involved in serious wrongdoing, about double those who believed he was not. The remainder said they didn’t have enough information to draw a conclusion.
“I think it’s going to be a closer race than most observers think it’s going to be simply because of how unpopular Bob Menendez is,” said Bob Salera, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
Hugin, 63, was a top executive at New Jersey-based Celgene, which develops cancer treatments, for nearly two decades before retiring as chief executive this year. A Princeton graduate and Marine veteran, Hugin was a major financial backer of former Gov. Chris Christie’s failed Republican presidential campaign and served on his finance leadership team.
In an emailed statement, Hugin said the ethics committee’s findings would be a focus of his campaign in the coming months. He said Menendez “disgraced himself and embarrassed New Jersey.”
“New Jersey voters deserve to know the truth about their incumbent senator, and we intend to make sure that they do,” Hugin said.
New Jersey hasn’t elected a Republican to the Senate since 1972, and Democrats have nearly 900,000 more registered voters than Republicans. Trump is also unpopular in New Jersey, and he lost the state to Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016 by 14 points. In the end, Trump could play a much bigger role in the race than the Senate committee’s public admonishment.
Still, the ethics report represented a rare rebuke of a sitting senator. The committee is equally split, with three Republicans and three Democrats. All six signed off on the letter admonishing Menendez for actions they said “reflected discredit upon the Senate.”
Marc Elias, an attorney for Menendez, said on Twitter that the committee’s conclusions “were not only contradicted by the presiding judge and rejected by the jury, but the proceedings clearly demonstrated that there was no violation of any law.”
Matthew Hale, an associate professor at Seton Hall University, said polling has consistently shown that people have more confidence in the courts than in the Senate.
“So I don’t think the tongue-lashing form the U.S. Senate is going to have too much of an effect,” Hale said.
In 2002, allegations of ethics failings ended the career of Sen. Robert Torricelli, D-N.J., who abruptly dropped his bid for a second term just five weeks before Election Day. He also was admonished by the ethics committee, but that came much later in the election season and in a different political climate. Menendez will benefit from voters who plan to use the Senate race to make a statement about Trump.
Rep. Bill Pascrell, D-N.J., now serving his 11th term representing a Paterson-based district, said he believes Menendez will be re-elected by a comfortable margin.
“I think the courts spoke for themselves. The Senate spoke, and now we can get on with the business of running a campaign,” Pascrell said. “I think he’ll come out of this standing tall.”
The Monmouth poll was conducted by telephone from April 6 to 10 with 632 registered voters. The margin of error is 3.9 percentage points.
The Quinnipiac poll was conducted by telephone from March 8 to 12 with 1,052 registered voters. The margin of error is 4.2 percentage points.
Associated Press writer David Porter in Newark, New Jersey, contributed to this report.
Reach Kevin Freking on Twitter at https://twitter.com/APkfreking