By Matt Rooney
That’s the last time a New Jersey Republican won a U.S. Senate race, Save Jerseyans. 46 years ago. I wasn’t even born yet! A point worth noting just to drive the point home…
Bob Hugin thinks he can break one of America politics’ greatest losing streaks. The former Celgen chieftain will announce a long-anticipated Senate candidacy this Tuesday February 13th at two events at opposite ends of the state: one in Springfield (Union County) and the second in Delran (Burlington County). The ultimate goal is to unseat the thoroughly-corrupt Bob Menendez who, while hobbled by a failed but highly-publicized federal prosecution, uncontroversially maintains the advantage with strong Democrat establishment support and a state electorate that’s predisposed to hate anything even remotely tied to Trump and his Republican Party (Hugin was a Trump delegate, donor and supporter in 2016). FiveThirtyEight covered most of the bases with its own analysis back in November.
So… can he pull it off? Or is this whole thing an expensive exercise in futility?
The only honest answer is “I don’t know.” No one does. We’ve entered the realm of the theoretical. Great upsets are always hypothetical until fate and the right moves conspire to makes them a reality.
I do know what he’d have to do to win (at least to start):
(1) Establish an independent but undiluted conservative brand. Duh. A generic Republican is DOA at a 2018 ballot box in any statewide contest. By the same token, “running” from Trump is both impossible and, arguably, ill-advised. There’s a finite amount of oxygen in any political cycle and this president has a way of consuming most it. Flipping the script is always a better bet than fighting on ground chosen by the enemy. Hugin will need to spend a lot of money – and spend it well – to swing what statewide candidate predecessors like Joe Kyrillos and Kim Guadagno never accomplished: telling a personal story and making it stick. Hugin’s story is a good one. It’s a rags-to-riches tale punctuated by personal success and service to his country in the armed forces. An American story! If he tells it? And tells it well with enough volume? The Trump taint won’t stick because he’ll be a real person, “Bob,” the not scummy one, not just another “R” with a big check book. Remember: Chris Christie ran a very conservative campaign in 2009 and still won statewide. Personalization is the key.
(2) Define Menendez as what he is: a hopelessly distracted embarrassment and failure. New Jerseyans are numb to high taxes and political corruption. Running on either, or both, won’t get it done. What still gets their fire up? New Jersey politicians who don’t focus on New Jersey and make us look stupid. Don’t take my word for it – ask Chris Christie who paid a heavy price for turning his back on the state’s jealous electorate. Phil Murphy is already working overtime to guarantee that history repeats itself. Hugin’s team should take Menendez to task for jetting around to exotic “gifted” vacations and corruption trial hearings, things which average working people can’t wrap their minds around, instead of getting his hands dirty working productively and passionately for the long-suffering New Jerseyans who pay the bills. Said another way: Menendez is distracted. He’s shitty for our brand. An absentee advocate who plays into the Jersey Shore/Sopranos stereotypes of a seedy state overrun by mobsters and buffoons. Make him pay for it by making him own it.
(3) Build an actual Republican Party and lead it. Newsflash: New Jersey’s GOP infrastructure is on par with the water system in Flint, Michigan. House Stark after the Red Wedding. Pick your hyperbolic analogy of choice and it’d work just as well. MOST county parties are broke. The party lacks any presence whatsoever in key counties. There isn’t any cohesive messaging from the senior leadership. Infighting is omnipresent. Newly-minted NJGOP Chairman Doug Steinhardt is rocking the boat a bit and making eyebrow-raising changes but the road back is a long one. A very long one. Hugin needs to be more than a candidate. He needs to LEAD a party. A strong, properly equipped Hugin campaign can jump-start the rebuilding process and, hopefully, begin to give the GOP the parity it needs with Democrats at least in terms of message delivery and GOTV muscle.
If Hugin pulls off each of these three things? And the economy doesn’t tank between now and November?
He’s got a fighting chance to make history.
He’ll join Doug Forrester and a long line of other well-heeled blue state Republican hopefuls on the consolation ladder of political history.