Saving Senator Menendez

In what might make a good movie script, Democrats in Hudson County are going to have to stop being their own worst enemies if they hope to salvage the 2018 senatorial campaign for incumbent Robert Menendez.
While Menendez has been blasting away at President Donald Trump with the help of his loyal sidekick Rep. Bill Pascrell, the real enemy won’t be the GOP in November – it will be other Democrats.
Prominent Democrats around the state are paying public lip service to Menendez, saying they will support him in their effort to keep his seat against Republican candidate Bob Hugin. The truth is, Democratic infighting throughout the county and state may make the party less effective in a year when Hugin is throwing around his vast wealth in an effort take Menendez’s seat.
In other states, GOP candidates are trying – perhaps foolishly – to play down their association with Trump at a time when Trump is seeing a boost in popularity. Menendez clearly is trying to tie Hugin to Trump in order to win back Democrats who might be turned off by the senator’s legal problems over the last two years.
Local Republicans, however, are not shying away from Hugin or Trump, and hope to draw on an increase in registered Republicans in Hudson County over the last decade.
“We have added 10,000 Republicans since 2010 and we are running a Latino and a Pakistani-American for Congress,” said GOP Hudson County Chairman Jose Arango. “Unlike neighboring counties, President Trump did better here than Mitt Romney. We may be in the minority but we are growing. I am always open to new ideas on how we can build on our success.”

Many see Menendez as vulnerable

In a mid-term election year in which Democrats hope to recapture the House of Representatives and possibly the U.S. Senate, some pollsters are suggesting that incumbents will likely retain their seats. But some forecasters see Menendez as a possible exception.
Menendez’ underwhelming victory in the Democrat primary against poorly-funded Lisa McCormick indicates weakness among Democrats, and a division that could see the GOP win a U.S. Senate seat in New Jersey for the first time in 50 years.
Arango said he is working to reach registered Republicans, independents, and disenchanted Democrats in Hudson County on Hugin’s behalf.
Although Hudson County is no longer the Democratic powerhouse it once was, when Hudson alone could sway an election for a particular candidate, a divided county could spell doom in an election in which Hugin is expected to be competitive elsewhere.
Ironically, Menendez and Hugin are both natives of Union City, making this a hometown fight as well as a fight for control of the U.S. Senate.

Maybe less than enthusiastic support for Menendez

State Sen. and Union City Mayor Brian Stack is expected to support Menendez, as is Bayonne Mayor Jimmy Davis, and the mayors of a number of small towns. But Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop may not be as enthusiastic in beating the war drums on Menendez’ behalf.
Even as mayor, Davis may not be able to convince voters in Bayonne to vote for Menendez. Historically, the GOP can count on strong support there, as well as in Secaucus, and some towns like Kearny in western Hudson County. One of the biggest changes in the political demographic has come in Hoboken, where a large percentage of voters voted for Trump in 2016.
Some voters in West New York – which is a strong GOP base – may not support Menendez as that city gets ready for an intense fight next year to unseat Mayor Felix Roque (if Roque even runs) or to decide his replacement if he doesn’t run.
When McCormick ran against Menendez in the primary, she was able to exploit Menendez’s chief weakness, a perception that he got away with something after a mistrial vindicated him of corruption late last year.

North vs. South Jersey could play role in Menendez reelection

But there are other factors at play, such as cultural, geographical, and political division in the state. Both U.S. senators come from the north Jersey, leaving Democrats in south Jersey feeling somewhat under-represented.
The endorsements for Menendez from unions and the usual Democratic supporters keep rolling in. It is difficult, however, to determine how hard some of the power brokers elsewhere in the state will work to get the vote out for him, especially when there are so many disputes between them.
After the charges were dropped against Menendez earlier this year, he stood on the court house steps and said he would not forget that some Democrats had hoped to exploit his demise. Most believe this was a message to Fulop in Jersey City, whom many believed was hoping to fill Menendez’s still warm seat if the trial had gone the other way.
Also in the background is the still-smoldering conflict between Hudson County Executive Tom DeGise and Fulop, Stack, Roque and Hoboken Mayor Ravi Bhalla, not to mention the divisions in each of those towns where the mayor is in conflict with his own commissioners or council members. While many say they support Menendez, it is hard to imagine some of them working together on Menendez’s behalf, such as Bhalla working side by side with his arch rival, Councilman Michael DeFusco.
National Democrats are equally divided, but in races in elsewhere strong state Democratic organizations can make up for a shattered national party. New Jersey Democratic organization is based on county, not statewide, organizations. So Menendez cannot count on a strong state organization to help pull together Democratic voters on his behalf.

Al Sullivan may be reached at