Sen. Menendez leaves corruption case behind, seeks 3rd term

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) - U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez has put a federal corruption case behind him, and now he is taking aim at his Republican challenger, a wealthy former biopharmaceutical executive.

The 64-year-old New Jersey Democrat announced he will begin his re-election campaign on Wednesday with stops in his hometown of Union City, outside of New York City, and at Rowan College in southern New Jersey.

The two-term senator is being challenged by Bob Hugin, a Republican and political newcomer who formerly headed Celgene, a pharmaceutical company.

Already the contours of the race are emerging.

Menendez campaign adviser Mike Soliman said "Bob stands up to greedy CEOs."

Hugin spokeswoman Megan Piwowar said "corrupt career politician Bob Menendez has failed New Jersey."

Democrats are defending 10 Senate seats in states won by Donald Trump in 2016, as Republicans work to preserve their narrow 51-vote majority.

Menendez was tried last fall on charges he traded his political influence for gifts and campaign donations from a friend. The case ended in a hung jury.

Just two months ago, federal prosecutors dropped all charges. He still faces a Senate ethics inquiry.

MORE: Sen. Menendez won't be retried on corruption charges

Despite the freshness of the case, Hugin faces a number of hurdles, even with his ability to spend millions of his own cash to boost his campaign.

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

"We know he can fund himself but what else?" asked Fairleigh Dickinson University political science professor Peter Woolley. "He is unknown. He is running with an unpopular Republican in the White House. And his Republican base is outnumbered by Democrats. That's already three strikes."

Hugin will have to answer "for his support of both Chris Christie and Donald Trump, who are anathema to New Jersey voters," Democratic strategist Julie Roginsky said.

A Quinnipiac University poll in March showed Menendez leading Hugin by 17 points. The poll surveyed 1,052 New Jersey voters and had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.2 points. The same poll showed slightly more people had an unfavorable view of Menendez than a favorable one, though 46 percent approved of the job he is doing compared with 39 percent who disapproved.

Hugin is a Marine veteran and successful businessman who promises to be an independent voice in Washington.

"With the right candidate you win elections," said Doug Steinhardt, the Republican state party chairman.

In attacking Hugin's business dealings, Democrats are citing Celgene's $280 million settlement last year over allegations that it promoted cancer drugs that were not approved by the Food and Drug Administration. Celgene did not admit liability in the agreement.