In the New Jersey Senate race, while Democrats are testing the public's tolerance for a deeply damaged incumbent,  Republicans are pushing a self-funded executive with no government experience.

It's a dismal election with bad choices.

Blame the political party bosses: Republicans have been running on fumes since former Gov. Chris Christie left office. The party could have chosen one of its experienced mayors or legislators to run for Senate. But it chose Bob Hugin, 64, of Summit, who, at best, has a weak grasp of the issues facing a densely and diversely populated coastal state.

Democrats are so enthralled with their own political dominance in the state they nominated two-term Sen. Bob Menendez, 64, of Harrison, even after his corruption trial detailed how he accepted lavish gifts and did government favors for a major donor whom he described as a "friend." The trial ended in a hung jury last year, and, in January, the U.S. Attorney's Office said it wouldn't retry him. Nonetheless, the Senate Ethics Committee rightly admonished him.

Menendez may not be guilty of a crime. But he is guilty of betraying the public trust — and his own legacy.

His opponent, Hugin, has run a campaign based on not being Menendez, but he hasn't presented himself as a reasonable alternative, and he has his own baggage. In 2017, when he was executive chairman of the pharmaceutical maker Celgene Corp. in Summit, the company helped block legislation that could have reduced drug prices for cancer patients.   Not being Menendez just isn't enough to support Hugin.

Depressing, isn't it? Yet, voters are still going to have to make a choice.

Still, Menendez has the edge because of what he has done, and says he will do, if reelected.

A scrappy Hudson County politician, Menendez made his bones when he fought off death threats to testify against his political mentor, ex-Union City Mayor William Musto, at his corruption trial. That fighting spirit served New Jersey well when Menendez moved to the House in 1993 and the Senate in 2006.

He has fought for gun safety, civil rights, and a woman's right to choose. He is a co-author of the Affordable Care Act and an early advocate of treating the opioid epidemic as a public health crisis. An attorney, he helped craft legislation protecting immigrant children brought to the country by their parents. He kept flood insurance prices down and forced the federal government to pay more than $300 million in flood claims it had previously denied. Since his earliest days in the House, he has protected Social Security and Medicare.

If New Jersey gives him a second chance and elects him to a third term, he has an unwavering obligation to act with integrity at all times. He told the Inquirer Editorial Board that he would be more careful when advocating for issues his friends raise — and that he learned a lesson about the importance of appearances of conflict.  How he missed it the first time is hard to imagine.

The Inquirer reluctantly endorses Sen. Bob Menendez (D., N.J.).

Do you find this valuable?

Our election coverage and endorsements are public service journalism that require a lot of resources and are undertaken in the best interests of our community. We hope you’ll consider supporting our work.

>> Click here for a special offer to subscribe

Hear full audio from our endorsement meetings with the candidates: