Share story

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — A little-known newspaper publisher won a surprising 38 percent of the vote against U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez in a Democratic primary, buoying Republicans’ hopes of ousting Menendez in November.

Whether that apparent protest vote against Menendez on Tuesday will translate into the GOP’s first Senate win in New Jersey since 1972, though, is murky.

Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor at the Cook Political Report, said Democrats turned off by corruption allegations against Menendez may have voted against him in the primary but might not be willing to go all the way and support a Republican in the general election.

“In New Jersey what’s worse: corruption or (President Donald) Trump? I’d say Trump,” she said Wednesday.

Menendez, who still took a healthy 62 percent of the vote in his contest with publisher Lisa McCormick, is set to face Republican challenger Bob Hugin in the fall.

Hugin, a former pharmaceutical executive, has been hammering Menendez for weeks with TV ads over a Senate ethics committee’s admonishment and a corruption case that was ultimately dropped by prosecutors after a mistrial.

Despite the reputational hit, Menendez will enter the race with advantages. He’ll be at the top of the ticket in New Jersey’s only statewide race in a year when national Democrats hope to pick up at least two but maybe up to five House seats in the state.

New Jersey has about 900,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans. Menendez has yet to dump any campaign cash into TV ads, and Trump is unpopular in the state. On Tuesday, unofficial results showed Menendez getting about 260,000 votes to McCormick’s 158,000. Hugin, by contrast, got 167,000 votes, beating his primary opponent by 50 percentage points.

Still, the fact that McCormick, who had an underfunded campaign and little visibility, was able to get a chunk of the vote against an incumbent who ran unopposed six years ago and won with 84 percent of the vote in 2006 has Republicans feeling optimistic.

Hugin, who was Celgene Corp.’s top executive until retiring to seek the Senate seat, is pouring $7.5 million of his own fortune into the race. His camp is calling the primary result a “disaster” for Menendez and is inviting frustrated Democrats and unaffiliated voters, the largest voting bloc in the state, to get behind Hugin.

“We absolutely want those frustrated Democrats to know that Bob Hugin will be an independent voice who puts New Jersey first, and we would welcome their support,” Hugin strategist Chris Russell said.

Menendez’s campaign has been portraying a vote for Hugin as a vote for the president.

“We can’t allow Bob Hugin to go to Congress and cast a vote for Donald Trump against New Jersey values,” Menendez campaign chairman Mike Soliman said.

Fairleigh Dickinson University political science professor Peter Woolley said Republicans hope to run a close race.

“They will not attract many of the disaffected Democratic voters,” Woolley said. “Some Democrats may not want to vote for Menendez but they will certainly vote against Trump.”

The primary came about six months after the U.S. attorney in New Jersey tossed out corruption charges against Menendez and weeks after his Senate colleagues admonished him over accepting lavish gifts from a friend and donor while using his office to help that person. Menendez denied wrongdoing.