NJ Senate Candidates Spar in Only Debate

NEWARK (AP) -
Bob Hugin, left, the Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate race in New Jersey, speaks during debate with Sen. Bob Menendez, the Democrat candidate, Oct. 24, 2018. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez, Pool)

Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez on Wednesday cast Republican rival Bob Hugin as President Donald Trump’s closest Senate ally-in the-making, but the former drug company executive bashed him over corruption charges in the closely watched contest’s first and only debate.

The two-term incumbent and former Celgene executive clashed in a live NJTV debate broadcast statewide.

In what has become a staple dynamic in the race and the reason experts say it’s much closer than expected, Hugin jabbed Menendez over the 2015 federal corruption indictment on charges that the senator accepted lavish vacations from a Florida eye doctor who is a friend in return for help with a Medicare billing dispute. The case ended in a mistrial.

“We deserve better. Bob Menendez has failed and embarrassed us,” Hugin said.

Asked directly whether he considered himself a “Trump Republican,” Hugin responded in the negative. “No, I’m not a Trump Republican. I’m an independent Republican. I’ve been independent all my life,” Hugin said.

Reflecting another principal attack in the campaign so far, Menendez criticized Hugin over his time as Celgene’s top executive, saying the company raised a cancer drug’s prices three times on his watch. “Who does that?” Menendez asked.

Hugin defended himself saying that “cancer is not cheap,” and patients are alive today because of the drug.

Keeping the seat is key for Democrats. Surveys have shown the New Jersey race closer than experts expected in a contest deep within Democratic territory.