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New Jersey Democratic primary voters send Menendez a message

Bob Menendez had the weight of New Jersey’s Democratic machine behind him, including enthusiastic endorsements from Gov. Phil Murphy and fellow New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker. | AP Photo

Democratic primary voters in New Jersey sent a message of protest to Sen. Bob Menendez on Tuesday.

Menendez — an influential two-term incumbent who survived a six-week corruption trial last year when the jury deadlocked on bribery charges against him — defeated challenger Lisa McCormick, a virtually unknown local newspaper publisher who didn’t even file a campaign finance report with the Federal Election Commission.

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But with 93 percent of the ballots counted, Menendez led with 62 percent of the vote — an unimpressive showing for the ranking member of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee facing a no-name opponent.

Menendez had the weight of New Jersey’s Democratic machine behind him, including enthusiastic endorsements from Gov. Phil Murphy and fellow New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker.

Monmouth University pollster Patrick Murray said the margin of victory “doesn’t look great.”

“Imagine if there had been a real challenge campaign,” he tweeted.

Democrats, however, felt Menendez’s numbers were likely depressed by the fact his Republican opponent, Bob Hugin, has already spent more than $ 2 million on advertisements — many negatively targeting New Jersey’s senior senator. The ads went entirely unanswered by Menendez, who has not yet started airing commercials and has done little campaigning.

Menendez also drew negative headlines when the Senate Select Committee on Ethics admonished him in a sternly worded letter, saying he broke the law in accepting gifts from Florida eye doctor Salomon Melgen and not reporting them.

“I wouldn’t say it’s a sign of weakness. I think it’s a sign that he has not responded to his opponent’s message, and we will,” New Jersey State Democratic Chairman John Currie said of Menendez‘s margin of victory.

Hugin spokeswoman Megan Piwowar said that “if it were any other two-term U.S. senator, this would be shocking.”

“Tonight’s results are clear that when it comes to corrupt, career politicians, New Jerseyans have had enough. In November, there will be a new Bob representing New Jersey.”

Hugin defeated his GOP primary opponent, Brian Goldberg, with 75 percent of the votes. But more Democrats appeared to have voted for Menendez than Republicans voted in the entire GOP primary.

“Tens of thousands of more Democrats than Republicans came out to vote for Senator Menendez than for Bob Hugin,” Menendez adviser Michael Soliman said. “We haven’t spent on TV yet because every dollar saved during a primary will go much farther during the general election, and we can’t allow Bob Hugin to go to Congress and cast a vote for Donald Trump against New Jersey values.”

Democrats believe they have plenty of ammunition on Hugin — a former pharmaceutical executive whose New Jersey-based company, Celgene, came under fire for raising the price of cancer drugs, parking money overseas and making it harder for companies to produce a generic version of its drugs — to blunt Menendez’s negatives.

“As voters learn about drug company CEO Bob Hugin’s record of jacking up drug prices on cancer patients, paying $ 280 million to settle fraud charges, and giving hundreds of thousands to elect Donald Trump, the choice before voters will be clear,” Soliman said.

Federal authorities announced earlier this year they would not retry Menendez after initially saying they would because a judge threw out many of the charges against him.

McCormick campaign manager Jim Devine, who is also her partner, said that with more money, party support and media attention, McCormick could have prevailed in the Democratic primary.

“One of the things you have to do when you set out to get something done is you have to believe it’s possible,” he said. “With money and widespread support and a unified progressive base, we could have succeeded.”

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