Editor’s note: This article was updated with comment from the Hugin campaign at 4:34 p.m.
TRENTON – While economic good news is often a boon for the ruling party, last week’s economic growth figures, which came in at a healthy 4.1%, might prove less bountiful than expected for some New Jersey Republicans.
U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez on Monday said the figure wouldn’t be felt by voters in the state, making its impact on New Jersey’s races negligible.
“I don’t think so for a variety of reasons,” Menendez said when asked if the news would boost the campaigns of Republicans like Bob Hugin. “Number one is that I think it’s a temporary infusion because it’s fueled by the enormous amount of the tax cut that comes to bear now, but most importantly, you don’t see it in rising wages and incomes of working and middle class families.”
While that may be true, the news does give Republicans something to celebrate.
Whatever the cause of the surge in growth, Republican congressional candidates have been handed a strong campaign line they can levy by backing President Donald Trump’s agenda, and an economic message tends to resonate well with voters.
But, that message comes with caveats Republicans are unlikely to publicize.
“This economic news is not going to be felt uniformly, and it’s not going to be felt at the same time,” said Micah Rasmussen, director of Rider University’s Rebovich Institute. “And, underlying all this is the point that economic good news is only as good as its impact on your family or your bottom line, individual voters’ bottom lines.”
Voters aren’t likely to care about growth that they can’t see or feel, Rasmussen said, and it may be a long time before voters in some areas of the state see any benefits from the second quarter’s surge in growth.
Even if voters do latch onto the number, a candidate like Hugin might have trouble cashing in on the good will.
Despite his role as Trump’s New Jersey Finance chair in 2016, Hugin has increasingly distanced himself from the president over the past several months in an apparent attempt to attract moderate voters.
That may be a smart play for the New Jersey electorate, which has an unfavorable view of Trump, but it’s not without its downsides.
“The trick for Hugin is he’s got to be willing to embrace the Trump agenda in order to be the beneficiary of it. Right now, he’s doing this two-step where he wants to embrace the popular parts of Trump’s agenda while distancing himself from the unpopular parts of his agenda in New Jersey,” Rasmussen said. “You can only benefit from an agenda that you’re willing to embrace in the first place.”
Hugin’s campaign celebrated the numbers and the policies that created them, but it’s not clear whether or not his campaign will seize on the issue moving forward.
“Last week’s economic growth numbers are great news for the American people, and a clear indicator that pro-growth policies are creating American jobs and strengthening our economy,” said Hugin communications director Megan Piwowar. “If Bob Menendez cared more about working people than he does about sucking up to the extremes in his party, he would agree.”
Should Hugin latch onto the good news, he might create a vulnerability Menendez’s campaign could easily exploit.
If Hugin touts the figure and the policies responsible for it, he opens himself up to attacks over any number of unpopular policies pushed by the administrations, including ones that Hugin has already come out against.
It’s a fine line to toe, and Hugin might just be better off staying his course, especially given that the payoff to leaning on the economic growth figures might prove slim.
“I think as I’ve traveled the state and talked about, even in the last presidential, about things are getting better, people would look at me and say ‘Senator, with all due respect, those macro-economic numbers may be the reality, but in my life and that of my family, the kid I sent to college is back at home living with me because he can’t find a job,’” Menendez said.