MOUNTAINSIDE, N.J. — On election night, Bob Hugin insisted it wasn’t his past as a pharmaceutical executive that did him in.
Incessant attacks from his Democratic opponent, $3.5 million worth of ads labeling him “the guy who made a killing” by raising drug prices, and a pharma-focused interview on a nationally syndicated radio show beg to differ.
Hugin, who was running against Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez, lost by nine points in his bid for New Jersey’s Senate seat on Tuesday. He conceded early in the evening, telling a crowd of supporters dotted with red hats and blue shirts emblazoned with Hugin’s de facto campaign slogan — “send in a Marine” — that New Jersey deserved better. Springsteen blared. Fox News showed Elizabeth Warren’s face. The crowd booed. Hugin grabbed a Budweiser.
Reflecting on his loss, just minutes after it was called by multiple television networks, Hugin lamented the bad rap the drug industry has acquired. New Jerseyans may not have wanted him in office, he said — but Celgene wasn’t why.
“Pharmaceutical companies, the life sciences industries, are American treasures,” he told STAT. “Our economy, our life is better because of the life sciences industry. That had so little impact in the outcome in this race.”
Hugin’s loss Tuesday — coupled with the broader success for House Democrats, many of whom ran on platforms that featured plans to lower drug costs — underscore just how serious the issue has become in American politics. Already at least one drug pricing reform advocacy group is declaring that the new Congress has “a mandate” to work to rein in the high prices of prescription medicines.
Throughout the campaign, Hugin was cautious in touting his success at Celgene, preferring campaign slogans focused on his military background, or even more simply, “New Jersey deserves better.”
But even in a race against Menendez, who faced a dozen federal corruption charges a year ago, Hugin frequently found himself defending his previous employment, a job in which he once made $48 million over the course of 15 months.
At the urging of a campaign consultant, Hugin appeared on the nationally syndicated radio show “The Breakfast Club” in an effort to reach more black voters. The tough questions came quickly and often.
Before a national audience, Hugin was asked by the radio personality Charlamagne tha God: “Do you think it was moral or ethical for your pharmaceutical company to raise prices 20 percent in less than a year on key cancer drugs and park money overseas, and make it harder for companies to produce the generic version?”
It was a hostile environment for Hugin — who was running as a Republican in a state hostile to Republicans, and as a pharmaceutical industry executive in a country increasingly hostile to the pharmaceutical industry.
In the end, the disadvantages proved too much to overcome.
At his election night party in this small town outside Newark, in a speech he delivered as results began to trickle in, Hugin made little mention of his career in business. The former drug company CEO did not utter the phrase “health care” in the brief remarks he delivered, standing at a podium just five miles from Celgene’s corporate headquarters.
With Celgene off the table, Hugin focused his campaign elsewhere. His campaign resurfaced the real allegations of corruption against his opponent Menendez — along with the long-since-debunked ones that he solicited underage prostitutes while vacationing in the Dominican Republic.
Hugin also worked to distance himself from President Trump.
Yet on Election Day, he was nevertheless endorsed by a presidential tweet, after a morning appearance on the president’s go-to television show, “Fox & Friends.”
And perhaps that is fitting: The supporters at his rally were far more eager to discuss Trump than they were Hugin’s career in pharma.
The party, in fact, had all the makings of a GOP political rally in 2018.
The crowd was dotted with red “Make America Great Again” hats. When a TV near a central bar was briefly switched from Fox to CNN, those watching asked that it be changed back. A speech from Hugin’s wife, Kathy, labeled the Newark Star-Ledger a “liberal bastion.” More than one “Lock him up!” chant was directed at Menendez — who, in fairness, has actually been charged with crimes.
With a few notable exceptions, Menendez’s victory was part of a trend of success for those campaigning on health care issues and using anti-pharma sentiment to bolster their campaigns.
Hugin, however, pushed back on the notion that Democrats’ rhetoric for the drug industry — and even the president’s — made it difficult to run as a drug industry executive in New Jersey, a state with a heavy biopharma presence.
Hugin would not rule out a return to politics on Tuesday, instead laying out only one immediate plan: to “do a little more fishing.”
His other interests, he said, could include a return to life sciences and medicine, specifically “neuroscience or information technology transforming health care.”
Nothing about the race, he said, has changed his mind about the importance and prominence of that industry.
“The lies and mischaracterizations about the pharmaceutical industry — the pharmaceutical is one of the greatest American treasures,” he said. “[We] do such good things for all people around the world.”
He said he has no plans to retire.