Five months after his admonishment by the U.S. Senate Ethics Committee, Democrat Bob Menendez is locked in a close race for re-election against retired drug company CEO Bob Hugin, an ally of President Donald Trump who is self-funding his campaign,
Faced with that, Menendez has staked his campaign on a claim that the alternative to him is more power to Trump and congressional Republicans.
“I’ve never forgotten where I come from and whose side I’m on, and now, that’s never mattered more,” Menendez said in a TV ad his campaign launched last week – the first such ad this cycle.
The claim that it’s “never mattered more” has become something of a rallying cry for his campaign, and it’s a fitting one for a candidate that many voters – even Democrats – might be souring on as Hugin’s negative ad blitz on Menendez’s ethics issues continue.
“It’s a good tagline, it’s a really solid tagline because it gets at so many things,” said Jennifer Duffy, the senior editor of the non-partisan Cook Political Report. “It gets at Trump in the White House. It gets at our more uncertain position in the world. The world has become a little bit more dangerous – thank you, North Korea. It gets at even things like now it’s more important to vote for Democrats and maybe give them a majority in the Senate because of elderly supreme court justices.”
The tagline also pushes an almost subliminal message that says “I’m better than the alternative,” Duffy said.
Menendez may be thankful for the timing of Trump’s election, regardless of how he feels about the president and his policies. Were he to face Hugin with a Democrat in the White House, or even with a less unpopular Republican, his already serious Senate race could take a turn towards dire.
Even with the likelihood of a blue turnout surge buoyed by Trump’s unpopularity and a Republican vice grip on the both chambers of Congress and the presidency, the race is one Democrats will have to keep a close eye one, Duffy said.
“They can’t get distracted, because there’s plenty of evidence that Menendez is vulnerable,” Duffy said. “But, they have a lot going for them right now. One, it’s a tough year for Republicans, especially Republicans in blue states. There are enough competitive house races in the state to get the base out, so they don’t have to worry about voters sitting it out.”
But, the news isn’t all good. Hugin has spared few expenses pushing out political ads using his considerable personal wealth. His first ad launched in February, and he hasn’t left the airwaves since.
Many of those ads have focused on Menendez’s troubles and have largely sidestepped introducing Hugin to voters in the state. The former strategy worked, as a Quinnipiac poll released earlier this month saw Menendez’s lead in the race cut down to six points. In March, the same poll found he led by 17 points.
The good news there is slimmer than it may seem, as while Menendez’s approval and favorability ratings were both upside down, Hugin’s numbers were scarcely above those of other Republican Senate candidates at this time in previous cycles.
“He’s already spent a good chunk, and while he’s accomplished part of his goal, which is to make people aware of Menendez’s ethics problem, he didn’t accomplish the second and more important part, which is establishing a profile with voters and gaining some traction,” Duffy said.
It appears that Hugin’s ad strategy is beginning to shift its focus to introducing the candidate to voters who, more often than not, have no idea who the candidate is. The Quinnipiac poll found 54% of voters were unfamiliar with Hugin.
A large amount of that introduction, and even a fair portion of his attacks on Menendez, leaned on Hugin’s own tagline – “It’s time to send in a marine.”
“I think it’s a message about toughness. Marines are viewed as patriotic, honest. It sort of plays into that whole message, it plays into an idea about someone who wants to go get things done,” Duffy said, adding later: “The other thing it does well is say ‘I’m more than a pharmaceutical executive. I’ve done other things.’”
The latter message will likely prove valuable to Hugin, who’s just begun facing televised attacks over his time as CEO of the pharmaceutical giant Celgene.
But, the tagline might not accomplish all the Hugin needs or wants it to.
“I don’t love it as a tagline, but it’s not awful,” Duffy said.
She did not believe that the tagline pushed a bipartisan image. Marines, while not partisan, are also not bipartisan, Duffy said.
If voters share that hangup, Hugin’s campaigning as a “different kind of Republican” could fall on fewer receptive ears than he needs, and his stances on issues like abortion, equal pay and offshore drilling – ones that align with New Jersey Democrats more than they do with Alabama Republicans – might not be enough to sell him as a safe alternative to Menendez in the Trump era.
Still, Duffy wouldn’t advise putting so much weight on a campaign tagline, not unless you’re Pete Dawkins.
“I’m not a huge believer in taglines driving races because I’ve heard a lot of good taglines from candidates who lose,” Duffy said. “My personal favorite was in 1986 when Paula Hawkins’ tagline was ‘unique, irreplaceable.’ Voters disagreed. By a lot.”