Sen. Bob MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezSenate GOP signals they'll help bail out Biden's Fed chair Democrats weigh changes to drug pricing measure to win over moderates Advocates frustrated by shrinking legal migration under Biden MORE (D-N.J.) and his well-funded Republican opponent Bob Hugin squared off in their first and only debate in a closer-than-expected Senate race in deep-blue New Jersey.
The candidates clashed over hyper-partisanship in politics, health care and their records.
Menendez cast Hugin as a “greedy health care CEO” and acolyte of President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump goes after Cassidy after saying he wouldn't support him for president in 2024 Jan. 6 panel lays out criminal contempt case against Bannon Hillicon Valley — Presented by Xerox — Agencies sound alarm over ransomware targeting agriculture groups MORE, while the Republican blasted Menendez over his corruption case that he argued “embarrassed” New Jersey.
The race has drawn national attention and money, though Menendez is still favored to win a third term. Polls show Menendez with a single-digit lead, as Hugin has poured in $24 million of his own money.
Here are the takeaways from Wednesday night’s debate in Newark:
Candidates spar over responsibility of political polarization
Both candidates condemned the deep polarization in politics in the wake of several bomb threats against Democratic politicians. But they disagreed on who should shoulder the blame.
The Secret Service found two "potential explosive devices" mailed to former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonOvernight Defense & National Security — Presented by Raytheon Technologies — Nation mourns Colin Powell The Memo: Powell ended up on losing side of GOP fight Powell death leads to bipartisan outpouring of grief MORE and former President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaOvernight Defense & National Security — Presented by Raytheon Technologies — Nation mourns Colin Powell The Memo: Powell ended up on losing side of GOP fight Powell death leads to bipartisan outpouring of grief MORE's respective homes. Meanwhile, CNN's office in New York was evacuated after a suspicious package addressed to former CIA Director John BrennanJohn Owen BrennanClinton lawyer's indictment reveals 'bag of tricks' Still in the game: Will Durham's report throw a slow curveball at key political players? UFOs are an intriguing science problem; Congress must act accordingly MORE was reported in the network's mail room.
Menendez laid the blame squarely on Trump, referencing the “lock her up” chants at his rallies and the president’s comments from last summer’s white nationalist rally in Charlottesville that “both sides” were to blame for the violence that turned deadly.
“When you create that type of environment, you create a toxic environment,” Menendez said, arguing that it’s been “largely created by this president.”
Hugin similarly denounced the lack of civility and called those threats “very serious,” but he said both parties on responsible for the current political environment — while taking a jab at Menendez for being too partisan.
“We’ve got to restore integrity and confidence in government,” Hugin said, disagreeing that Trump is mainly responsible. “Incivility is on both sides.”
Menendez corruption case takes center stage
Menendez’s corruption case has loomed large over the race and was an early topic of discussion at the debate.
In 2015, he was indicted on bribery and fraud charges over allegations he traded influence in exchange for gifts from a longtime friend who’s a Florida ophthalmologist and political donor.
His trial ended in a hung jury and federal prosecutors later dropped the charges. But the Senate Ethics Committee “severely” admonished Menendez earlier this year over the case.
Menendez, who has denied any wrongdoing, said he understood that people are “disappointed" and apologized. But he urged voters to focus on his overall record in the Senate.
“I also want them to look at the totality of my service of standing up for people in New Jersey,” Menendez said.
Hugin quickly seized on the issue, arguing in his opening statement that Menendez wants to focus on Trump because he doesn’t want to draw attention to “his record of corruption.”
“On top of that, it’s not just corrupt, it’s ineffective,” Hugin said. “New Jersey is dead last. … We get the least back from Washington.”
In his rebuttal, Menendez invoked the president: “We’d get a lot more back if we’re not ripped off by the Trump administration.”
Hugin keeps some distance from Trump
A he has in every other battleground state, Trump has been a dominant force in the New Jersey Senate race.
Hugin, a political newcomer, was Trump’s finance chairman for his presidential campaign in New Jersey. But the Republican sought to create some distance from the president, who lost New Jersey by 14 points in 2016.
When asked point blank if he is a “Trump Republican,” Hugin said no stating, “I’m an independent Republican.”
He also rattled off a list of issues with which he’s at odds with Trump, including opposition to off-shore drilling, support for abortion rights and same-sex marriage and the state and local tax deductions (SALT) caps in the GOP tax law.
And when pressed about race relations in the state, Hugin criticized the president for “being divisive on the issue of race.”
Menendez, who frequently brought up Hugin’s ties to Trump, shot back: “You can’t change in 60 seconds what you’ve been for 60 years.”
Hugin’s time as pharma CEO comes under scrutiny
Hugin’s time as CEO of the pharmaceutical company Celgene Corp. was under a microscope at Wednesday’s debate.
The New Jersey Republican was asked about the steep price hike for the cancer drug, Revlimid.
Hugin defended his tenure, arguing that his company helped patients overcome cancer and noting that Celgene has invested billions of dollars into cancer research.
When the moderators asked Menendez if it’s the job of a CEO to turn a profit, Menendez called Hugin a “greedy health care CEO” who raised the price of the drug multiple times.
“You can do well but also do good. He preyed on the most vulnerable,” Menendez said. “This isn’t about research, this is about profit.”
Asked later about the pay disparity between executives and lower-level employees, Hugin said he supported transparency of salaries and that his company had one of the “lowest ratios in the country.”
Menendez leans heavily on ObamaCare
Democrats are going all-in on health care messaging this midterm, and Menendez is no exception.
Menendez repeatedly brought up his work on the Affordable Care Act, noting in his opening statement that he “proudly” authored the health care law. And he also touted the popular provisions in the law like coverage for individuals with pre-existing conditions and children under the age of 26 being allowed to stay on their parent’s insurance.
At one point in the debate, the Democratic senator said his opponent “sounded like he endorsed the Affordable Care Act, which I helped write,” pointing out that Hugin’s children were able to stay on his plan.
When the moderators asked if he supports ObamaCare, Hugin specifically highlighted provisions like coverage for “pre-existing conditions.” But he said that reforms are needed, calling the law “virtually a fraud on the working poor.”
Instead, the two candidates found more common ground on issues like comprehensive immigration reform and combating climate change.