The downside for Democrats, however, is that they’re sweating his 2018 reelection bid. The Senate map for Democrats is bad enough this year—their long-shot bid to capture the Senate next Tuesday hinges on defending and winning seats in southern and western red states—and the last thing they needed was a toss-up race in blue New Jersey. But they’re stuck with Menendez, and in recent weeks their Senate PAC has been compelled to pump $6 million into the contest.
In a normal year, Menendez might well be doomed. Voters in the so-called Sopranos State aren’t totally numb regarding corruption; in the latest poll conducted by Rutgers University’s Eagleton Institute of Politics, only 28 percent of New Jerseyans view Menendez favorably. They’ve long been reluctant to send Republicans to the Senate—that hasn’t happened since 1972—but if this were a normal year, they’d likely be tempted. Indeed, the nonpartisan Cook Political Report says that this race is a toss-up. Even the Jersey editorial writers who have endorsed Menendez say that he’s “slippery” and “awful.”
But if Menendez survives election night, he should probably pen a thank-you note to Donald Trump—with perhaps a separate note to his Republican opponent, the pharmaceutical mogul Bob Hugin, who in 2016 raised money for Trump, donated $200,000 to Trump, and served as a convention delegate for Trump. Menendez has lucked out because in New Jersey, the president’s baggage is far weightier than his.
Trump’s share of the Jersey vote in 2016 was 41 percent, and his summer approval rating was 33 percent. Trump has been a drag on Republicans campaigning for the House; at least two of the GOP’s five New Jersey seats seem poised to go blue, and voters statewide, by double-digit margins, reportedly favor a Democratic Congress. Trump has staged numerous rallies in the closing weeks of the midterm campaign, but it’s telling that none have been in swing Jersey districts. Menendez has duly taken advantage, airing TV ads that link his foe to the president (“To stop Trump, stop Hugin”). Hugin, mindful of the statewide polls, has been compelled to insist that he’s not a toady for Trump (“I’ve been independent my whole life”), which doesn’t square with his lavish praise of Trump, most notably on Fox News, where he called the president “constructive and engaged.”
Hugin, who has pumped his own wealth into the campaign, has hammered Menendez with references to last year’s federal trial—Menendez was hit with 18 corruption charges—but that hasn’t trumped his own baggage. Hugin also swung for the fences by resurrecting the long-debunked rumors of underage prostitutes, but that move merely underscored the ugliness of the race that editorialists call “the most depressing choice for New Jersey voters in a generation.”
A Democratic candidate without a checkered reputation would most likely have left Hugin in the dust months ago; Menendez reportedly leads by only single digits. He could’ve eased his party’s burden by stepping aside and clearing the way for a better candidate—which is what happened in the autumn of 2002, when the Democrat incumbent Bob Torricelli, who’d also been admonished by the Senate Ethics Committee for taking gifts from a donor, dropped out and was hastily replaced by Frank Lautenberg—but Menendez wanted political redemption. He declared outside the courthouse last November, after his federal trial ended with a hung jury: “To those who were digging my political grave so they could jump into my seat: I know who you are, and I won’t forget you.” (There was talk that day, especially among fans of The Sopranos, that Menendez sounded stereotypically Jersey.)