Poll: Menendez leads Hugin by 5 points in New Jersey

Poll: Menendez leads Hugin by 5 points in New Jersey
© Greg Nash

Sen. Bob MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezHouse to vote on resolution condemning Trump's Syria pullback Rand Paul calls for probe of Democrats over Ukraine letter Senators ask Treasury to probe Brazilian meatpacker with major US footprint MORE (D-N.J.) holds a five-point lead over Republican challenger Bob Hugin in New Jersey’s Senate race, according to a new Rutgers University Eagleton Institute of Politics poll released Wednesday.

About 51 percent of likely New Jersey voters support Menendez’s bid for a third full term in the Senate, while 46 percent support Hugin.

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The five-point margin is low for a Democratic incumbent in reliably blue New Jersey. Corruption allegations against Menendez have cast a large shadow over his campaign.

The Senate Ethics Committee admonished Menendez in April, saying he broke the law after he “knowingly and repeatedly accepted gifts of significant value” without proper approval or disclosure. The Department of Justice moved in January to dismiss indictments against Menendez after a federal judge tossed out several charges. A judge declared a mistrial in November in a case regarding the senator's alleged corruption and bribery. 

The cloud surrounding the campaign may contribute to the lack of enthusiasm surrounding Menendez’s candidacy. Only 29 percent of Menendez supporters are “very enthusiastic” about voting for him, while 58 percent of likely voters say the same of Hugin. 

About 38 percent of likely voters say the trial factors into their vote “a lot” and 16 percent say it factors “some.” The trend has become particularly significant among independents, who favor Hugin over Menendez by a seven-point margin of 50-43. About 39 percent of Independents say the charges factor into their decision “a lot,” while 20 percent say they factor in “some.”

“After his recent onslaught of attack ads against Menendez, Hugin is making this race much closer than it should be for an incumbent in a blue state,” said Ashley Koning, assistant research professor and director of the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling (ECPIP) at Rutgers University–New Brunswick. “But what’s most responsible for the narrow margin here is the corruption charges against Menendez that have haunted his entire re-election campaign. Mistrial or not, the charges have dampened support where Menendez needs it most – with independents and even a handful of his own base.”

About 10 percent of Democrats would cross party lines and would vote for Hugin, compared to only 5 percent of Republicans who say they would vote for Menendez. About 32 percent of Democrats say the corruption charges play “a lot” or “some” role in their decision.

However, Menendez has opened up large leads over Hugin in key Democratic voting blocs, beating his opponent by double digits among women, non-white residents, and likely voters under 50 years of age. He holds an eight-point lead over Hugin among those in households making less than $100,000 annually. 

Menendez's lagging poll don't appear to be hurting down ballot Democrats. In a generic ballot for the state, likely voters side with the Democratic candidate over the Republican candidate in their home district by a margin of 54-40.

Nonetheless, Menendez’s troubles are sure to be of concern for Democrats. They are already defending 10 seats this midterm cycle in states Trump won in 2016 and are reluctant to shift lresources to defend a seat in reliably Democratic state.

Rutgers surveyed 1,006 adults and 496 likely voters from Oct. 12-19. The poll has a margin of error of +/- 3.6 percent for adults and +/- 5.1 percent for likely voters.

--This report was updated at 10:35 a.m.