An­a­lysts: Me­nen­dez still has edge de­spite ethics cen­sure

Daily Times (Primos, PA) - - NEWS - By Kevin Frek­ing

WASH­ING­TON » New Jersey Demo­crat Bob Me­nen­dez seems in good shape to win a third term de­spite a harsh re­buke from fel­low sen­a­tors who say he vi­o­lated cham­ber rules and fed­eral law, ac­cord­ing to po­lit­i­cal an­a­lysts and party col­leagues.

The Se­nate ethics com­mit­tee found that Me­nen­dez re­peat­edly ac­cepted gifts of sig­nif­i­cant value, failed to re­port them and ad­vanced the per­sonal and busi­ness in­ter­ests of the donor who pro­vided the gifts.

The al­le­ga­tions were hardly new to most New Jersey vot­ers. Me­nen­dez’s fed­eral bribery trial last fall cen­tered on those same ac­cu­sa­tions. It ended with a hung jury; pros­e­cu­tors de­cided not to retry the case.

What­ever neg­a­tives were gen­er­ated from the trial ap­pear to be more than off­set by the fact he has a “D” next to his name in the Demo­cratic strong­hold, said Patrick Mur­ray, di­rec­tor of the in­de­pen­dent Mon­mouth Univer­sity Polling In­sti­tute in New Jersey.

Mon­mouth’s polling this month showed Me­nen­dez with a 53 to 32 per­cent ad­van­tage over his likely Repub­li­can chal­lenger in Novem­ber, for­mer Cel­gene ex­ec­u­tive Bob Hu­gin.

“They’re not happy with his be­hav­ior, but they seem to be will­ing to over­look it,” Mur­ray said of New Jersey’s vot­ers.

A poll from Quin­nip­iac Univer­sity re­leased in March showed a sim­i­lar re­sult, 49 per­cent for Me­nen­dez and 32 per­cent for Hu­gin.

The Se­nate com­mit­tee’s find­ings cer­tainly won’t help Me­nen­dez, Mur­ray said, but “he has a long run­way to put this be­hind him as long as no new al­le­ga­tions come out.”

There are, how­ever, warn­ing signs.

Me­nen­dez, 64, seems to be hov­er­ing around 50 per­cent in his head-to-head matchups with Hu­gin, even with the vast ma­jor­ity of vot­ers not hav­ing enough in­for­ma­tion to form an opin­ion of the Repub­li­can.

Hu­gin, with much money at his dis­posal, could per­suade most of those un­de­cided vot­ers to move his way. Hu­gin has lent his cam­paign $7.5 mil­lion so far and has said he’s will­ing to add sub­stan­tially to that.

Na­tional Re­pub­li­cans also note from the Quin­nip­iac poll that 38 per­cent of New Jersey vot­ers be­lieve Me­nen­dez was in­volved in se­ri­ous wrong­do­ing, about dou­ble those who be­lieved he was not. The re­main­der said they didn’t have enough in­for­ma­tion to draw a con­clu­sion.

“I think it’s go­ing to be a closer race than most observers think it’s go­ing to be sim­ply be­cause of how un­pop­u­lar Bob Me­nen­dez is,” said Bob Salera, a spokesman for the Na­tional Repub­li­can Sen­a­to­rial Com­mit­tee.

Hu­gin, 63, was a top ex­ec­u­tive at New Jersey­based Cel­gene, which de­vel­ops can­cer treat­ments, for nearly two decades be­fore re­tir­ing as chief ex­ec­u­tive this year. A Prince­ton grad­u­ate and Marine veteran, Hu­gin was a ma­jor fi­nan­cial backer of for­mer Gov. Chris Christie’s failed Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial cam­paign and served on his fi­nance lead­er­ship team.

In an emailed state­ment, Hu­gin said the ethics com­mit­tee’s find­ings would be a fo­cus of his cam­paign in the com­ing months. He said Me­nen­dez “dis­graced him­self and em­bar­rassed New Jersey.”

“New Jersey vot­ers de­serve to know the truth about their in­cum­bent sen­a­tor, and we in­tend to make sure that they do,” Hu­gin said.

New Jersey hasn’t elected a Repub­li­can to the Se­nate since 1972, and Democrats have nearly 900,000 more reg­is­tered vot­ers than Re­pub­li­cans. Trump is also un­pop­u­lar in New Jersey, and he lost the state to Demo­crat Hil­lary Clin­ton in 2016 by 14 points. In the end, Trump could play a much big­ger role in the race than the Se­nate com­mit­tee’s pub­lic ad­mon­ish­ment.

Still, the ethics re­port rep­re­sented a rare re­buke of a sit­ting sen­a­tor. The com­mit­tee is equally split, with three Re­pub­li­cans and three Democrats. All six signed off on the let­ter ad­mon­ish­ing Me­nen­dez for ac­tions they said “re­flected dis­credit upon the Se­nate.”

Marc Elias, an at­tor­ney for Me­nen­dez, said on Twit­ter that the com­mit­tee’s con­clu­sions “were not only con­tra­dicted by the pre­sid­ing judge and re­jected by the jury, but the pro­ceed­ings clearly demon­strated that there was no vi­o­la­tion of any law.”

Matthew Hale, an as­so­ci­ate pro­fes­sor at Se­ton Hall Univer­sity, said polling has con­sis­tently shown that peo­ple have more con­fi­dence in the courts than in the Se­nate.

“So I don’t think the tongue-lash­ing form the U.S. Se­nate is go­ing to have too much of an ef­fect,” Hale said.

In 2002, al­le­ga­tions of ethics fail­ings ended the ca­reer of Sen. Robert Tor­ri­celli, D-N.J., who abruptly dropped his bid for a sec­ond term just five weeks be­fore Elec­tion Day. He also was ad­mon­ished by the ethics com­mit­tee, but that came much later in the elec­tion sea­son and in a dif­fer­ent po­lit­i­cal cli­mate. Me­nen­dez will ben­e­fit from vot­ers who plan to use the Se­nate race to make a state­ment about Trump.

Rep. Bill Pascrell, D-N.J., now serv­ing his 11th term rep­re­sent­ing a Pater­son­based district, said he be­lieves Me­nen­dez will be re­elected by a com­fort­able mar­gin.

“I think the courts spoke for them­selves. The Se­nate spoke, and now we can get on with the busi­ness of run­ning a cam­paign,” Pascrell said. “I think he’ll come out of this stand­ing tall.”

JULIO CORTEZ — THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS FILE

In this file photo, Sen. Bob Me­nen­dez, D-N.J., speaks dur­ing an event kick­ing off his cam­paign for re-elec­tion at Union City High School in Union City, N.J.

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