Menendez and Hugin Spar, With the Focus on Trump, in New Jersey Senate Debate

By Nick Corasaniti

THE NEW YORK TIMES

Oct. 24, 2018

Senator Robert Menendez, right, a Democrat from New Jersey, and the Republican challenger for his seat, Bob Hugin, engaged in a generally civil debate on Wednesday night in Newark.

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By Nick Corasaniti THE NEW YORK TIMES Oct. 24, 2018 Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey and his Republican challenger, Bob Hugin, squared off in a debate Wednesday night that simmered with an undercurrent of contempt, but rarely erupted into the mudslinging that has defined the race as the candidates repeatedly focused their disagreements on President Trump’s record.

The only scheduled debate between the men took place as the contest for Mr. Menendez’s seat has become unexpectedly close. Mr. Menendez is seeking re-election in a deeply blue state where Mr. Trump is immensely unpopular during a year when Democratic energy is surging.

But dogged by a federal corruption trial last year that ended in a hung jury, Mr. Menendez has maintained slim leads in most polls and has come under a wave of negative attacks from Mr. Hugin. A poll from Rutgers University released on Wednesday found Mr. Menendez leading by 5 points.

Throughout the hourlong debate in Newark, which was hosted by NJTV, the candidates debated the federal tax law, immigration, race relations and corruption.

With a motivated Democratic base in New Jersey threatening to claim traditionally Republican congressional districts, Mr. Menendez has sought in the closing weeks of the campaign to tether Mr. Hugin to the president, hoping voters will make the race a proxy referendum on Mr. Trump.

Throughout the debate, a prevailing line of attack for Mr. Menendez was to paint Mr. Hugin as a rubber stamp for Mr. Trump on a variety of issues, including the federal tax law, the nomination of Brett M. Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court and health care.

“You can’t in 60 minutes change what you’ve been for 60 years,” Mr. Menendez said.

But Mr. Hugin did try to distance himself from the president. “No I’m not a Trump Republican, I’m an independent Republican,” he said. At one point he criticized Mr. Trump as being “divisive on the issue of race.”

For his part, Mr. Menendez said several times that Mr. Hugin had donated to Mr. Trump’s presidential campaign and had been chairman of his campaign in New Jersey.

That Mr. Hugin would try to separate himself from Mr. Trump is understandable: A recent Rutgers poll found that Mr. Trump had a 56 percent unfavorability rating among likely voters.

It may be a signature accomplishment of Mr. Trump’s tenure, but the tax bill passed last year has not been well received in New Jersey, largely because of a limit placed on state and local tax deductions, known as SALT. And there are few topics that New Jersey residents complain about more than taxes.

Mr. Menendez, who voted against the bill and was a vocal critic, accused Mr. Hugin of essentially supporting the tax law and scoffed at his opponent’s argument that he opposed the SALT provision.

“There are some good parts of the tax reform bill,” Mr. Hugin said. “But the SALT means that I could have never voted for that bill.”

When pressed by a moderator about whether he supported other elements of the tax bill, Mr. Hugin largely demurred, though he said he believed that some of the corporate tax cuts made the United States more competitive with other countries.

Mr. Menendez tried to score points by highlighting Mr. Hugin’s personal wealth. “He likes it because he got a big tax cut as a result of it,” Mr. Menendez said.

A Monmouth University poll this month found that health care was the top concern in New Jersey among likely voters.

Mr. Menendez repeatedly reminded viewers that he was one of the principal authors of the Affordable Care Act. He also assailed Mr. Hugin’s record as chief executive officer of Celgene, a pharmaceutical giant, which raised the price of a cancer drug to $16,000 from $6,000 during his nearly 20-year tenure.

Mr. Hugin defended Celgene’s record, saying its medicines had saved lives.

“Cancer is not cheap,” Mr. Hugin said. “There are thousands, hundreds of thousands of patients that are alive today that wouldn’t otherwise be alive, because of Celgene.”

For most of the debate, the candidates rarely interrupted each other or raised their voices. But after 50 minutes of avoiding outright confrontation, Mr. Menendez erupted as Mr. Hugin sought to defend an advertisement his campaign released that resurrected unsubstantiated allegations seeking to link Mr. Menendez to underage prostitutes.

“It’s a lie, Bob,” Mr. Menendez said, turning completely to face Mr. Hugin and gesticulating directly at him. “And you know it’s a lie.”

Mr. Hugin attempted to interject, but Mr. Menendez kept going.

“I didn’t interrupt you,” he said. “Don’t interrupt me.”

Mr. Hugin, with a mild eye roll, waited as Mr. Menendez went on the attack about Celgene “not telling patients about potentially fatal side effects” of a cancer drug.

“You did that,” Mr. Menendez said. “Who does that?”

Mr. Hugin, remaining calm, stood his ground and offered a terse rebuttal.

“Nope,” he said. “Not true.”

While Mr. Menendez attempted to tie his opponent to Mr. Trump, the Republican challenger worked to weave Mr. Menendez’s ethics trial into nearly every issue.

In Mr. Hugin’s opening statement: “He doesn’t want to talk about anything in his record of corruption and failure.”

On Mr. Menendez missing votes: “He wasn’t there because he was on trial in a federal court.”

On 10 of the 12 jurors in Mr. Menendez’s federal trial believing that he was innocent: “He abused the power of his office, disgraced the Senate.”

But Mr. Hugin also sought to make the case that Mr. Menendez’s ethics have made him an ineffective senator.

“We get the least back from Washington than any state in the country,” Mr. Hugin said. “It’s not right, it’s time for change.”

Mr. Menendez acknowledged some “mistakes” in office but asked voters to look at his lengthy record.

“I understand there are people in our state who are disappointed,” Mr. Menendez said. “And I apologize to them. But I also want them to look at my totality of service of standing up for the people of New Jersey.”

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