RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Among the 30,000 attendees of the Rutherford Street Fair, sweating it out on the street between the zeppoles and deep-fried Oreos, was the pharmaceutical millionaire who wants to be their next senator.
Bob Hugin, the former CEO of Celgene, spent Labor Day walking through the crowd with a phalanx of staff and volunteers, each with a sign and a T-shirt bearing his name. They chanted, cheered, and sloganeered as Hugin’s would-be constituents looked on, varyingly bemused or befuddled at the merry little militia demonstrating in their town. Hugin shook hands, posed for photos, and remembered to say “good to see you” but never “nice to meet you.”
This is his life now. In February, the 64-year-old left behind the air-conditioned conference halls, sycophantic analysts, and princely pay packages that come with being a Fortune 500 CEO. He branded himself “a different kind of Republican,” set aside $20 million of his own money, and became the GOP’s only hope to unseat the incumbent Sen. Bob Menendez.
“To be honest with you, I wouldn’t be running if it wasn’t for him, because he’s wrong for New Jersey, and he’s wrong for our country,” Hugin said in the shadow of his hulking tour bus, painted to blare his name and his campaign’s bellicose slogan: “Send in a Marine.”
Hugin might seem a strange choice. He has never before held office, and his industry, pharma, has an approval rating of just 33 percent, according to Gallup. The rising cost of prescription drugs, virtually the only issue that united President Trump and Hillary Clinton, is something with which he has experience.
Revlimid, Celgene’s banner cancer drug, costs nearly twice as much today as it did in 2010, the result of repeated price increases. On the eve of Hugin’s retirement, Celgene paid $280 million to settle charges that it defrauded Medicare to boost profits.
At a time of widespread foment over drug prices, can a pharma CEO get elected to the U.S. Senate?
“Look, Bob Hugin has $20 million that he’s willing to spend on this race, so he absolutely has a shot,” said Matthew Hale, a political science professor at Seton Hall University in South Orange. “I think it’s quite likely that he’s going to spend $20 million and lose, but you can’t discount that kind of money.”
Hugin’s wealth has turned the New Jersey Senate race into a surprisingly tight and immediately vicious campaign, one that doubles as a referendum on the drug industry’s place in the American psyche. While Hugin runs as a business leader devoted to winning a war on cancer, Menendez insists he’s a pantomime villain of pharmaceutical greed.
But Menendez has his own issues. He’s less than a year removed from an embarrassing corruption trial that ended in a hung jury. In his most recent primary, he ceded 37 percent of the vote to an unknown candidate who spent zero dollars campaigning.
The latest poll, conducted in mid-August, had Menendez leading Hugin by just six points. Soon it’ll be up to the voters.
Since winning the Republican primary in June, Hugin has embarked on what the campaign is calling “the Better Bob Bus Tour,” which has taken the candidate to a Kenny Chesney concert at the Meadowlands, the Asian American Retailers Association trade show in Edison, and the Ecuadorian Parade and Festival in Newark, where the former CEO sipped from a sliced-open pineapple while wearing a sash that read, in all caps, “INVITADO.”
Walking through Rutherford, Hugin had largely settled into the uncanny valley of a politician on the trail. He shook hands and gave thumbs up, ending his clipped conversations with a fist jab that called to mind Tiger Woods after sinking a putt. There were awkward moments, like when a passerby confused the staff’s chants of “Hugin” for “union,” or when a bystander picked up one of the campaign’s brochures and then promptly handed it back.
By the end, Hugin was doused in sweat that his sky-blue polo did little to conceal as he ate a celebratory hot dog from the volunteer firefighters’ booth. It was, after all, 97 degrees, and nearly everyone was drenched.
But not Menendez. The 64-year-old senator, who won his first election when he was 20, made an identical sojourn up and down Park Avenue and emerged, after 90 minutes in the sun, with neither a visible droplet nor a hair out of place.
He beamed at every child, met every joke with a big laugh, and comfortably hit his angles for every selfie. His walk through the street fair was consistently interrupted by hugs from well-wishers, backslaps from down-ticket Democrats, applause from vendors, and shouts of “Hey, Bobby!” and “Good luck, Bob!” He ended his walk in the shade, trading jokes with freeholders and a county executive as a distant cover band played “Daydream Believer” from a gazebo.
Where Hugin was greeted like new management, Menendez was plainly at home.
“Nobody knows who this guy is,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, referring to Hugin. “You’ve got to understand New Jersey politics: Unless you’re already a statewide elected official, you’re just not known to the electorate.”
Even if that changes, Hugin might not benefit. In national polls, concern about the cost of health care is the No. 1 issue among voters, Murray said. That, combined with the general distaste for pharma, could be damning for the former Celgene CEO.
Hugin defends the price hikes to Revlimid by pointing out that the drug has proven to benefit more patients than first thought, which means it’s more valuable and thus ought to be more expensive.
“The thing I think people don’t realize over time is that more than 90 percent of the patients that ever took a Celgene cancer drug paid $50 or less per month in copay,” Hugin told STAT. “And the company invested more than 40 percent of its revenue into R&D, because it’s not good enough where we are in cancer, even though we’ve made good strides.”
Whether that will assuage voters with broad-based anxiety about the cost of health care remains to be seen. But that’s where the ex-CEO’s $20 million comes in. Hugin has been attacking Menendez since April, paying for TV ads before he’d even won his primary. The message has been consistent: The charges against Menendez, which prosecutors dropped earlier this year, have disgraced the senator and his state, and the time has come for change.
Among New Jerseyans at the Rutherford Street Fair, it seems to have resonated.
John Tavaska, a retiree from Passaic, voted against Menendez in the Democratic primary and laments that “we have a candidate with such” — and here he pauses — “baggage.” The Menendez saga, which began in 2015 and resulted in a public letter of admonition from a bipartisan Senate committee, could give Hugin a chance.
“I think it’ll be close, closer than anyone thought,” said Tavaska, who plans to back Menendez in November.
Christine Beidel, a Democrat from Rutherford, said the charges against Menendez left “a little black mark next to his name.” She voted for the senator’s primary challenger in June, but, like Tavaska, will support him in the general election, as the idea of electing a man with a record of “gouging people for lifesaving drugs” is too much to bear, she said.
“People are more interested in talking about Menendez,” Beidel said, “and that stuff hasn’t been proven. I mean, sure, it’s probably true, but this” — Celgene’s raising of drug prices — “is true. We know he did it.”
Hugin’s televisual blitz explains why the race has tightened in recent months, Murray said, but it comes with a caveat. The latest poll came before Menendez ran a TV ad of his own, one that takes Hugin to task over the price of Revlimid.
“Corporate greed looks like drug company CEO Bob Hugin,” the ad begins, before pointing to Revlimid’s escalating price and noting, curiously, that the drug is cheaper in Russia than it is in the U.S.
“The way Menendez is beginning to define Bob Hugin is as the guy who raised prices on cancer patients,” Murray said. “Then, down the line, you’ll see ads saying, ‘Oh, by the way, he gave $200,000 to Donald Trump. And then the message is he stole money from cancer patients to give to Donald Trump, and that’s a powerful one-two punch in New Jersey.”
Hugin, like most centrist Republicans, has a complicated relationship with the president. In 2016, he gave the maximum $5,200 to Trump’s campaign and donated another $233,000 to the Republican National Committee. But on the policy side, Hugin has proclaimed himself to be pro-choice, in favor of marriage equality, and supportive of a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
And yet with each public appearance, Hugin has passed on the opportunity to court undecided voters by openly criticizing Trump, whose New Jersey approval rating hovers in the 30s.
In the days following the death of Sen. John McCain, Hugin punted on a question about the president’s yearslong feud with the Arizona Republican, which famously began with Trump denigrating McCain’s military service. Hugin didn’t defend the president but instead pleaded ignorance.
“I would have no reservation of criticizing anybody if they did anything to disrespect Sen. McCain,” Hugin said, according to Politico. “I’m just not knowledgeable of the facts.”
Menendez, predictably, pounced.
“To say you didn’t know that was happening? Come on,” he told reporters at a press conference. “It’s because you don’t want to criticize President Trump.”
Trump’s unpopularity has forced Hugin onto a tightrope he’ll have to walk until Election Day, said John Weingart, associate director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University. If he embraces the president, he’ll alienate centrist independents who are less than thrilled with Menendez. But if he denounces Trump, voters in the Republican strongholds of South Jersey might decide to stay home. And then there’s the fact that, no matter Hugin’s views on Trump, a vote for him is a vote to further empower Republicans in the Senate.
New Jersey hasn’t sent a Republican to the Senate since 1972.
“It’s hard to imagine that New Jersey voters who have voted overwhelmingly Democratic for president since Bill Clinton would turn to picking a senator who would support Mitch McConnell for Senate leadership rather than Chuck Schumer,” Weingart said.
Back in Rutherford, the two Bobs’ squabble played out in miniature. Hugin’s campaign handed out hard copies of a Senate ethics committee letter admonishing Menendez for his actions during the bribery scandal, while the senator’s volunteers passed around printouts of a Department of Justice press release announcing Celgene’s $280 million settlement payment.
And, Hugin, just 20 miles away from Celgene’s headquarters in Summit, was wrapping up his latest public appearance as a political candidate. After posing for photos with staff and volunteers, he made a final rah-rah pitch.
“Nov. 6, if we get the vote out, we’re going to win,” Hugin said to applause from his small contingent. “New Jersey deserves better.”
And then it was back on the bus and off to Lodi.