PRINCETON, N.J. (Reuters) - For Democrats, Tuesday’s New Jersey U.S. Senate election should have been a breeze.
Bob Menendez, 64, has held the seat for more than a decade in a state that has not elected a Republican to the U.S. Senate in 46 years.
But June’s Democratic nominating contest exposed his potential weakness following his federal corruption trial last year: 40 percent voted for a virtually unknown challenger who spent zero dollars in the race.
Menendez is locked in a tough and expensive race with a Republican who has hammered Menendez as unethical, former pharmaceutical executive Bob Hugin, also 64.
Top Democrats in the state, including New Jersey’s other U.S. senator, Cory Booker, seen as a potential 2020 White House contender, and Governor Phil Murphy, were scheduled to appear at several campaign events on Monday with Menendez, telling voters that re-electing their colleague would help block Republican President Donald Trump’s agenda.
The Cook Political Report, an independent group that analyzes congressional races, moved the race to “toss-up” from “leans Democrat” 10 days ago.
Opinion polls have shown Menendez with a small but consistent lead, but Democrats sounded the alarm by pouring millions of dollars into the race in its final weeks.
The effort may have paid off: a Quinnipiac University poll on Monday gave Menendez a 15-point lead. That was the biggest lead any public poll has found for the Democrat since April.
The contest is crucial to the Democrats’ slim hopes of taking control of the Senate, which depend on winning two Republican-held seats while defending 10 Senate seats in states that Trump won in 2016.
A loss in New Jersey, a Democratic bastion in the U.S. Northeast, could be a fatal blow to those chances.
Democrats remain favorites to win the 23 seats they need to capture the U.S. House of Representatives.
Menendez’s corruption trial ended in November 2017 when the jury could not reach a verdict. U.S. prosecutors dropped the case, but Menendez was censured by a Senate committee for accepting gifts from a wealthy friend in exchange for favors.
Hugin, a Marine Corps veteran and the former executive chairman of Celgene Corp, has poured $36 million of his own money into a barrage of television commercials attacking Menendez.
“If there were any other normal candidate who was not self-funding, I think Menendez would be ahead by 20 points,” said Brigid Harrison, a political science professor at Montclair State University.
The Democratic-aligned Senate Majority PAC has spent more than $7.5 million to boost Menendez, including running ads in the waning days of the campaign, a signal the party is concerned about the incumbent’s position.
Another super PAC, Patients for Affordable Drugs Action, has spent nearly $3.5 million to attack Hugin, saying he kept cancer drug prices artificially high.
“We feel really good about our position right now,” said Steven Sandberg, a spokesman for Menendez’s campaign.
A Democratic strategist involved in the race expected Menendez to win but said the close campaign had drawn Democratic dollars that could have been used in other crucial Senate races.
The state’s biggest newspaper, the Star-Ledger, reluctantly endorsed Menendez in an editorial headlined: “Choke it down, and vote for Menendez.”
“The people of New Jersey recognize that we can and we will do better than Bob Menendez,” said Nick Iacovella, a Hugin campaign spokesman.
A Hugin commercial repeats allegations that Menendez hired underage prostitutes in the Dominican Republic. The FBI investigated those claims years ago and never brought charges.
Menendez, who noted that fact-checkers had deemed the ad false, called Hugin a “slimeball” for running it.
Hugin, who donated money to Trump’s 2016 campaign, has tried to distance himself from the president’s more incendiary rhetoric, disagreeing with Trump’s proposal to end birthright citizenship.
But Democrats have portrayed Hugin as a crucial vote for Trump’s agenda, aiming to convince Democratic and independent voters to support Menendez as a check on the president.
“I don’t particularly like Menendez but I feel that I have to vote for him because I think the alternative is worse,” said Jess Kilpatrick, a retired paralegal from West Amwell who disapproves of Trump.
Kilpatrick said she has voted for Republicans in the past.
“But this year I’ll be voting strictly Democrat,” she said.
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Reporting by Joseph Ax; Additional reporting by Jonathan Spicer; Editing by Peter Cooney and Grant McCool