How This Republican Could Shock a Blue State

How This Republican Could Shock a Blue State

On Feb. 13, 2018, Bob Hugin greets the public after announcing he's running for U.S. Senate as a Republican, challenging Democrat Robert Menendez, at the Springfield Elks Lodge in Springfield, NJ.

SourceEd Murray/The Star-Ledger via AP

Why you should care

Former Marine and pharma exec Bob Hugin is running as a socially liberal Republican in New Jersey.

Bob Hugin needs bubble gum. Standing atop his campaign float on a rainy Sunday, the Republican Senate candidate is taking a page out of the student council playbook, his aides tossing treats at the crowd gathered for the annual Dominican parade in Paterson, New Jersey. Only, as the 64-year-old rips into a bag of assorted candy, something is missing. “Get Bob some gum!” a staffer shouts over the speakers blasting merengue music. Finally, someone arrives with a jumbo bag of Dubble Bubble. “I can’t afford to have bad breath. I need every vote I can get,” he explains.

With that, Hugin is gone, jumping off his parade float in jeans and a windbreaker, blowing bubbles as he shakes hands, holds babies, poses for pictures. It’s a frenetic contrast to his opponent, Democrat Bob Menendez, who leisurely walks a few blocks ahead in his penguin suit, surrounded by a dozen staffer umbrellas, only joining the crowd when his aides motion for him to do so. And why not the casual pace? After all, Menendez already has his U.S. Senate pin, and New Jersey hasn’t elected a GOP senator since 1972 … just three years after America first landed a man on the moon, perhaps analogous to the difficulty Hugin faces in winning this state with nearly 1 million more registered Democrats than Republicans.

Yet the numbers show Menendez should be watching his back as November nears. Multiple recent polls showed the race essentially tied, though a Quinnipiac Poll released Wednesday had Hugin down 11. The Marine and former CEO of Celgene, a cancer drug company, has attended more than 400 events, his press secretary says, crisscrossing the state while wearing out his Fitbit and tasseled Allen Edmonds loafers (which he got on sale for $350). Hugin has pumped $15.5 million of his own money into his campaign and has said he would spend as much as $20 million. The dough has gone into television ads decrying Menendez as corrupt after the incumbent was accused in a federal indictment of offering favors to a Florida doctor in exchange for perks and campaign contributions. In this Democrat-friendly year, OZY’s exclusive midterm predictions model, in partnership with Republican data firm 0ptimus, finds Hugin has a 15 percent chance of victory — long odds, but still better than Senate races once thought to be juicy GOP targets in Wisconsin, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

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President Donald Trump listens to Bob Hugin, then executive chairman of the Celgene Corporation, at the White House in January 2017.

Source Ron Sachs/Pool/Getty

Meeting at Dominican restaurant El Sabor Tropical ahead of the parade, Hugin sports a New Jersey Devils hockey team cap and picks apart his biography while picking at two legs of chicken. The son of a retired Army officer and union teletype operator who lost his job in his 50s, Hugin grew up dreaming of leaving working-class Union City to play catcher for the New York Mets. He didn’t have a good-enough arm and studied instead, earning a need-based scholarship to Princeton University, where he worked 20 hours a week as a dishwasher for beer money. After graduating, he served seven active-duty years in the Marines, where an officer memorably told him leaders “solve problems; they don’t run from them.” After leaving the military, attending business school and working 14 years at JPMorgan, he says that mentality inspired him to join Celgene at a time when the pharmaceutical company was in dire financial straits, in 1999. “I didn’t start on third base and stumble home. I started at home plate, had no silver spoon in my mouth — the tough neighborhood in a tough town,” he says.

Celgene became a Fortune 500 company worth $80 billion with more than 4,000 employees, and in 2013 he was named the best CEO in biotech by financial news company TheStreet. But that record has also come under fire at a time when Big Pharma is accused of profiting from the opioid crisis and hiking drug prices unfairly. Last year, Celgene settled a $280 million whistle-blower lawsuit claiming the company had inappropriately promoted its drugs as treating cancers they had not been approved. And he has been targeted by a $1.5 million ad campaign by a super PAC accusing him of disproportionately boosting drug prices. Hugin contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Republican National Committee that helped elect Donald Trump in 2016, but the president’s administration included Celgene in a list of companies using “gaming tactics” to avoid competition with generic drugs.

“It’s pretty black-and-white: The man greedily raised the price of cancer drugs,” says Liz Delgado-Polanco, vice-chair of the New Jersey State Democratic Committee, calling Hugin a “rubber stamp” for Trump. “The increases in research spending have been more than five times the percentage of price increases,” Hugin responds, adding he was “never aware of one patient in financial need who didn’t have access to life-saving medicine.” And Hugin has tried to pin Menendez as the actual “Big Pharma” candidate in campaign attack ads.

It’s hard to imagine this race being competitive at all if not for the corruption charges against Menendez. A judge declared a mistrial due to a hung jury in November of last year, and federal prosecutors have said they won’t pursue further charges. Still, the Senate Ethics Committee “severely admonished” Menendez for his actions, and his vulnerability was shown when a little-known Democrat pulled in 40 percent of the vote against Menendez in the June primary.

“I’m taking a moral stand,” says Teddy Price, a Democrat candidate for freeholder in Toms River, New Jersey, who has endorsed Hugin. He is making it easier for Democratic voters to shift allegiances by espousing a fiscally conservative, socially liberal platform. “He’s letting people know that he’s pro-environment, pro-marriage rights, pro–women’s rights,” Price says. Hugin ran ads saying he was pro-choice — which lost him the support of anti-abortion group New Jersey Right to Life — and pro-LGBTQ rights. (The latter stance caused a dustup when the Menendez campaign pulled out a 1976 news article in which Hugin said a gay member “wouldn’t last long” at a Princeton “eating club,” a fraternity-like social club. Hugin says his views evolved, not unlike Menendez, who once backed “don’t ask, don’t tell” and the Defense of Marriage Act.)

In a state where Trump’s approval rating was just 33 percent in August, Hugin has to campaign as “a different kind” of Republican.

A good-enough angler that he had to disclose $52,000 in fishing tournament winnings in his personal finances, Hugin says things like “I’m a fisherman; climate change is real.” He backs parochial initiatives that conflict with national Republicans’ agenda — funding the Gateway tunnel to New York, or amending the Republican tax law so it doesn’t hurt high earners from high-tax states like his own.

He is still a Republican, though. On alternative energy, Hugin wants to fund research to make solar and wind competitive, rather than “pick winners and losers” through subsidies. He supports Israel, opposes single-payer health care and backs defense spending, saying companies “are not afraid of taking risks for 10 to 15 years because we know we’re strong physically and financially secure,” he says.

In a state where Trump’s approval rating was just 33 percent in August, Hugin has to campaign as “a different kind” of Republican. But you get the sense that the pharmaceutical executive turned hustling politician, who’s known to give his wife and children impromptu trivia quizzes, understands the absurdity of the showmanship his new vocation requires.

As he jogs past me to meet new voters at the Dominican parade, one staffer comments: “How is he so fit?” Which isn’t odd, until another passes by in a “Send in a Marine” campaign T-shirt. “I don’t know if you’ve ever covered politicians before, but this one will make you sweat,” he says. Then another: “I don’t know how he gets the energy,” she adds. “You never see a politician this fit,” a fourth chimes in a second later. Yes, we get the metaphor: Hugin is running hard on Menendez’s heels.

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