In the final evening of his campaign for the U.S. Senate, Republican Bob Hugin told the crowd that a forecast of rain traditionally helps the GOP; will that work this year as Democrats come out to vote against Donald Trump?
(Above: Early signs showed a strong turnout in the traditional Democratic stronghold of Hudson County.)
For a guy who’s new to politics, Bob Hugin seems to have a firm grasp on the political impact of precipitation.
“It’s raining out. That’s Republican weather,” the Republican U.S. Senate candidate said Monday night in Ocean County. “These other guys will stay home and we’re gonna make it happen.”
He also showed a firm grasp of geography.
“Ocean County is the heart and soul of the Republican Party in New Jersey,” he said. “If it wasn’t for Ocean County, there wouldn’t be a Republican Party in New Jersey.”
That’s an exaggeration, of course. But it’s certainly true that no Republican could win in New Jersey without winning Ocean County big.
The same is true of Monmouth County to the north, where Hugin was headed after his appearance before the Ocean County Republicans at a hotel on Route 37.
It used to be Bergen County that was the greatest Republican stronghold. But over the years Bergen turned increasingly blue. The best a statewide GOP candidate can hope for is to pick up a small edge there.
But as county GOP chair George Gilmore noted in his introduction to Hugin, Ocean went YUGE for Donald Trump in 2016, giving him a 92,000-vote margin even as The Donald lost the rest of the state.
A more telling election result came in 2009, when Chris Christie picked up enough votes in the big townships in the middle of the state to offset his losses in the traditional Democratic strongholds of the north. That gave him the governorship over incumbent Jon Corzine.
That pattern will likely repeat itself today as Hugin faces Democratic incumbent Bob Menendez. Whether it will be enough to offset anti-Trump sentiment up north remains to be seen.
Menendez wasn’t very popular south of the Raritan River even before he got caught doing favors for a Florida eye doctor who defrauded Medicare of $73 million.
I started covering these campaigns back in 1978, when Bill Bradley made many trips to the suburban and rural counties on his way to victory in a U.S. Senate race. Democratic Senator Frank Lautenberg was also competitive in the suburbs.
But Menendez has spent this campaign holed up in the northeastern corner of the state collecting endorsements from the usual suspect such as unions.
That promises to make this a close race. That’s where the rain comes in.
Traditional wisdom holds that the voters in the suburban towns where Republicans are strongest will show up at the polls regardless of conditions.
The Democrats tend to rely more on Election Day get-out-the-vote efforts. When the Star-Ledger had its old offices in Newark, I recall many an Election Day on which loyal party functionaries would drive the streets with P.A. systems urging the residents to get to the polls.
That doesn’t always work even in good weather. In that 2009 race, for example, Corzine ran up the usual 65,000-vote margin in Essex and 46,000 in Hudson.
But those results were canceled out when Ocean and Monmouth went for Christie by margins of 70,000 and 64,000 respectively.
After the election Monmouth University pollster Pat Murray told me, “It’s not clear this was a sea change in the way in which Jerseyans vote. It was clearly just an anti-Corzine vote.”
Will that sea change today? Gilmore seemed to think so.
“We have not elected a senator in 46 years,” he said. “This is the best chance we have had.”
The GOP winner 46 years ago was a guy with a profile similar to Hugin’s. Clifford Case was a moderate Republican who had great success in general elections. But he was ousted in the 1978 Republican primary by the late Jeff Bell, a conservative who also got the Senate nomination in 2014 only to lose to Cory Booker.
Will another moderate be able to repeat Case’s success at the polls?
That remains to be seen. Perhaps Hugin will capture the middle by winning voters who are tired of our senior senator’s antics. He could also capture the votes of the pro-Trumpers who want to keep Congress from turning Democratic.
The big question is whether the anti-Trump vote up north will exceed the anti-Menendez and pro-Trump vote to the south.
The only thing that’s certain is that this race wouldn’t be in doubt if the Democrats had dumped Menendez. Even if he ekes out a single-digit win that will hurt his fellow Democrats down the ballot in four key Congressional races that could decide which party controls the House.
In the meantime, Hugin already had one wish granted. It’s been pouring all day.
As he finished up his speech to the party faithful in Toms River, Hugin returned to the theme of rain
“This election is about who gets the vote out and I hope it rains hard tomorrow,” he said. “Let’s finish the job.”
Like the rainfall, that’s now out of his hands.
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