Bob Hugin is airing a new TV ad aiming to win over Democratic and independent voters by staking positions on abortion, marriage equality and equal pay that are to the left of the national Republican platform, but such a move could do more to harm the Senate hopeful than help him.
“If you’re a Republican, you’re with Trump. If you’re a Democrat, you’re against Trump,” said Rick Shaftan, a Republican strategist and pollster. “It doesn’t make a difference what you say. The best thing that can happen to Hugin is that nobody sees this ad. The problem is he’ll probably put a couple million dollars behind it.”
Shaftan’s view is that today’s partisanship makes fishing for voters across party lines a fruitless exercise, not to mention a dangerous one that risks alienating Trump voters.
Hugin’s campaign sees it a different way. Menendez won renomination last Tuesday, as expected, but he did so by a much thinner margin than anyone predicted.
Menendez won his primary against Lisa McCormick, an unknown challenger who had no money or organizational support and barely mounted a campaign, with 62% of the vote.
“Democrats are frustrated with Menendez,” said Hugin Communications Director Megan Piwowar. “Four out of ten gave him a public rebuke last week in Tuesday’s primary, and that’s where Bob Hugin can come in with an independent voice and attract them and say ‘hey, we’ve got room over here for you guys. Bob’s an independent voice. He’s going to listen to you. He’s going to put New Jersey first no matter what,’ and we’d welcome their support.”
Regardless of whether or not any Democrats defect and cast ballots for Hugin, the new ad opens a vulnerability that Hugin, who was a Trump fundraiser and delegate in 2016, hasn’t yet had to deal with.
“It certainly doesn’t fit in the Trump wing of the party. It’s not going to fly with them, and they’re not going to appreciate these positions for sure,” said Micah Rasmussen, director of Rider University’s Rebovich Institute. “So, if you’re from that wing of the party, you probably want to be thinking more along the lines of what Seth Grossman said the other day, unfortunately, about diversity.”
Rasmussen acknowledged that, on Trump, Hugin was stuck between something like a rock and a hard place.
The president’s popularity in the state leaves much to be desired — an April Monmouth University poll puts Trump’s New Jersey approvals at an upside-down 34%-61% — and Hugin’s attempts to distance himself from Trump will likely pale in the face of the Menendez campaign’s efforts to tie him to the same.
“Bob Hugin doesn’t have enough money to separate himself from Donald Trump after all the money that he spent to help make him the president,” said Menendez campaign chairman Michael Soliman.
In 2016, Hugin contributed $100,000 to a super PAC backing Trump and another $150,000 to the Republican National Committee. In all, according to records filed with the Federal Election Commission, Hugin has contributed nearly $1.7 million to GOP candidates nationally.
Still, Rasmussen said that it’s possible that Hugin could stake out his own policy positions while remaining pro-Trump. The trouble there is that the Menendez campaign could easily push every Trump policy that arises into the campaign, forcing Hugin to alienate Trump voters or the moderates he’s courting now.
But, that’s a fine line to toe, especially after candidates like South Carolina Rep. Mark Sanford have seen party support evaporate after standing against Trump, Rasmussen said.
Still, Hugin has increasingly attempted to distance himself from the president in the past months. He’s gone after Trump’s rescission package, which would federal aid for New Jersey, including the Child Health Insurance Program.
He’s also declined to say whether he would like Trump to campaign for him in the state, a declination that Piwowar repeated on Thursday.
“I think right now this campaign is more concerned about putting Bob Hugin out in front of New Jersey voters and New Jersey voters hearing from Bob Hugin,” Piwowar said.
It might be a politically savvy move to keep the president out of his campaign, but while his presence would likely push away some moderates, it would also make sure that Trump voters turn out in November.
Shaftan said that Hugin’s pro-choice message could cause some New Jersey Republicans to stay home on Election Day — and that might cost the GOP some votes in close House races.
“It’s like you do everything for the left, and they still are against you anyway,” Shaftan said. “There isn’t one liberal, there isn’t one pro-abortion voter, there’s not one pro-gay marriage voter who’s going to vote for Bob Hugin because of this ad. All that he’s doing is telling anyone who’s pro-life or anyone who’s pro-marriage or anyone who supports President Trump, ‘don’t vote for me. I’m not your candidate, and don’t come out in November.’”