Attacks leveled in two new ads released by Republican U.S. Senate candidate Bob Hugin that aim to hit incumbent Bob Menendez over bad medical outcomes in the office of Salomon Melgen, the friend and donor at the nexus of the senator’s recent ethics woes, actually have little to do with the senator.
“There’s nothing in any of the record of any of what transpired here to suggest that anything that Sen. Menendez did had anything to do with the quality of care that Dr. Melgen provided to his patients,” said Micah Rasmussen, director of Rider University’s Rebovich institute. “I don’t even know how you would begin to make a legitimate argument that Senator Menendez had anything to do with anything that happened in Dr. Melgen’s examination room. It just doesn’t really pass the smell test as far as I’m concerned.”
The ads feature stories of botched ophthalmological procedures by Melgen that left patients blind after procedures Hugin’s camp says were unnecessary.
But while Menendez’s ethics troubles and the core of Hugin’s attack strategy against the senator stem from his relationship with Melgen, who was sentenced to 17 years in prison for Medicare fraud earlier this year, there’s no evidence suggesting Menendez had anything to do with the procedures referenced in the ad, a fact the Menendez campaign didn’t wait to grasp onto.
“Bob Hugin knows that Bob Menendez had nothing to do with Dr. Melgen’s medical practice — everybody does,” Menendez spokesman Steve Sandberg said in a statement. “It is sad and pathetic that greedy drug company CEO Bob Hugin would lie to and use these patients in an attempt to hide and distract from what he did — not anyone else — to prey on the sick and suffering, gouge and put cancer patients at risk just to get rich.”
The only attempt the ads make to create such a link is by underscoring the relationship between Menendez and Melgen.
Those ads point the Menendez’s indictment for improperly using his office to benefit Melgen, but there’s no clear connection between the since-dropped and medical practices.
Hugin’s campaign didn’t attempt to make such a link, instead using Melgen’s fraught history to paint the physician in an even harsher light than he was left in following his conviction.
“Menendez violated federal law and abused the power of his office for his ‘best friend’ Dr. Melgen, a convicted felon and donor who blinded patients by lasering their retinas and performing unnecessary, horrific procedures that some compared to torture,” Hugin Communications director Megan Piwowar said in a statement. “Instead of going on a campaign tour begging to be re-elected, Menendez should be going on a public tour apologizing to the patients who Melgen blinded as well as to the people of New Jersey for disgracing and embarrassing them.”
Rasmussen said the ads were likely an attempt to switch the campaign’s approach to the ethics trouble of its opponent.
Those attacks, which the campaign has leveled since before Hugin won his primary in June, have thus far focused on Menendez’s admonishment by the Senate Ethics Committee and friendship with Melgen, as well as a handful of specific ethics charges against the senator.
But, with the campaign entering its final weeks and Hugin in about the same place as previous Republican Senate candidates in the polls, they may have seen a need to shift their approach.
“It looks to me like Hugin’s ad people wanted to look at Menendez’s ethics problems in a completely different lens. In other words, what’s the most odious connection they could possibly make between Melgen and Menendez. How could they make this stick even more than it does?” Rasmussen said. “They weren’t bound by where the actual facts of the case had gone or where they are but that if you played these commercials for a focus group, they could produce the strongest, most visceral reaction that you could possibly have.”
In some sense, Rasmussen said, the new ads follow logically from ads Hugin’s campaign previously ran that had testimony from patients with multiple myeloma praising Hugin for his time as CEO of Celgene, which sells Revlimid, a treatment for the incurable cancer.
Hugin’s repeatedly raising the price of Revlimid during his tenure has been the core of the Menendez campaign’s attacks, and diverting attention with a healthcare-related attack could serve to blunt them somewhat, even if those attempts have their flaws.
“The Hugin ad people are trying to close the circle and complete the narrative of the campaign that they’re trying to paint, which is Hugin’s good patient outcomes versus Menendez bad patient outcomes. The problem here is that it’s the same problem – seven degrees of separation,” Rasmussen said. “They’re neither Hugin’s nor Menendez’s patients, but you can see how it’s an arc. You can see how it’s a story they’re trying to tell.”