GOP Senate hopeful jabs Menendez, distances self from Trump

DELRAN, N.J. (AP) - Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez no longer has to worry about federal corruption charges hanging over his re-election campaign, but the Republican front-runner seeking to oust him wasted no time reminding voters about the case.

Retired New Jersey pharmaceutical executive Bob Hugin publicly launched his campaign Tuesday, painting himself as a fiscal conservative who will work with Democrats and disagree when needed with Republicans including President Donald Trump, while alluding to the dropped corruption charges against Menendez.

"He went into politics to serve himself, his friends and his donors. I'm offended by Senator Menendez's actions," Hugin said. "He's violated the public trust."

Prosecutors last month decided not to re-try Menendez after a judge acquitted him and a co-defendant on some bribery charges following a November mistrial. Menendez had always denied the charged that he traded his political influence in exchange for gifts and campaign contributions.

He still faces a Senate Ethics Committee investigation.

Hugin, 63, served as a top executive at New Jersey-based Celgene, which develops cancer treatments, for nearly two decades before retiring as chief executive this year. A Princeton graduate and Marine veteran, Hugin was a big financial backer of former Republican Gov. Chris Christie's failed presidential campaign and served on his finance leadership team.

Hugin, who is expected to bring millions of his own money into the race, donated $4,800 to Menendez in 2010. Menendez's campaign has $4.1 million cash on hand, Federal Election Commission records show.

Hugin's announcement comes as Republicans seek to defend their 51-seat majority in the Senate under a president whose job approval rating has been historically low.

Democrats cast Hugin as a pharmaceutical executive looking to line his own pocket. Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman David Bergstein called Hugin the "hand-picked" candidate of Trump and Christie.

"He'd be a rubber stamp for President Trump and his agenda that raises taxes on middle class families," Bergstein said.

Hugin contributed $250,000 to a super political action committee supporting Christie's presidential bid and also donated to Christie's campaign directly. He also donated to Trump's White House bid in 2016 and appeared with him at the White House last year for a discussion about drug prices and later praised the president's agenda as "pro-growth."

New Jersey hasn't elected a Republican to the Senate since 1972, and Democrats have nearly 900,000 more registered voters than Republicans. Unaffiliated voters are the state's biggest voting bloc.

Trump is also unpopular in New Jersey, having lost the state to Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016 by 14 points.

Former GOP Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli, who says he's planning to run for governor in 2021, attended the announcement Tuesday and is supporting Hugin. He says if Hugin would be well-served if he points out where he disagrees with Trump, particularly on state and local tax deductions, rail infrastructure funding and offshore oil drilling.

"It's no secret there are strong anti-Trump winds blowing in New Jersey," Ciattarelli said. "Any Republican needs to know how to thread the Trump needle."