Cook moves Menendez race in New Jersey to tossup

The Cook Political Report has shifted Sen. Bob MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezWilliam Barr is right man for the times This week: Trump delivers State of the Union amid wall fight BuzzFeed story has more to say about media than the president MORE’s (D-N.J.) reelection race to a toss-up in New Jersey, a depressing development for Democrats, who are having to protect a seat in a deep-blue state when they need to focus on protecting members in states where President TrumpDonald John TrumpBill Kristol resurfaces video of Pence calling Obama executive action on immigration a 'profound mistake' ACLU says planned national emergency declaration is 'clear abuse of presidential power' O'Rourke says he'd 'absolutely' take down border wall near El Paso if he could MORE is more popular.

Menendez is facing a tough challenge from Republican Bob Hugin, a former pharmaceutical company CEO, in what’s become a closer-than-expected race in a state that Trump lost by 14 points in 2016. New Jersey hasn’t elected a Republican to the Senate since 1972.

Jennifer Duffy, a Senate analyst for Cook, wrote on Friday that the race has become solely about Menendez’s ethics problems and voters' lack of enthusiasm. Menendez, who has denied any wrongdoing, has weathered attacks over his 2015 indictment of bribery and fraud charges.

His trial ended in a hung jury, and federal prosecutors later dropped the charges. But the Senate Ethics Committee “severely” admonished Menendez earlier this year over the case.

“The biggest threat to Menendez’s re-election is not so much Hugin than it is the voter who goes to the polls and decides to send Menendez a message, much the way many did in the primary when 38 percent voted for his unknown primary opponent,” Duffy said.

“There is certainly a thumb on the scale for Menendez, who is said to have a lead of between four and six points, in this very blue state, but the race is close enough to warrant a move to Toss Up.”

Democrats face a difficult battleground for the Senate this year, as the party is defending nearly three times the seats as Republicans, many of them in states won by President Trump in 2016 by double-digit margins.

New Jersey is decidedly not one of the states where Trump is popular, and the party would prefer to devote its resources to states such as North Dakota, Montana, Missouri, Indiana and Florida, which all feature tough races. 

Polls have shown Menendez leading with a mid- to high single-digit margin. But Hugin has been willing to massively spend out-of-pocket, loaning his campaign a total of $27.5 million. He’s heavily outspent Menendez, though the senator has gotten some help from national Democrats, specifically millions in advertising from Senate Majority PAC.

Menendez and Hugin sparred in their one and only debate on Wednesday night, when they traded sharp personal barbs.

Menendez called Hugin a “greedy health-care CEO” and blasted him for his ties to Trump since he worked as the chairman on the president’s New Jersey campaign. Meanwhile, Hugin zeroed in on the Democratic senator’s legal woes, saying that he has “embarrassed and failed” New Jersey.

Republicans hold a narrow 51-49 edge in the Senate. 

They are defending four seats seen as toss-ups by Cook in Texas, Tennessee, Nevada and Arizona.

Democrat Heidi HeitkampMary (Heidi) Kathryn HeitkampOvernight Energy: Trump taps ex-oil lobbyist Bernhardt to lead Interior | Bernhardt slams Obama officials for agency's ethics issues | Head of major green group steps down Trump picks ex-oil lobbyist David Bernhardt for Interior secretary On The Money: Shutdown Day 27 | Trump fires back at Pelosi by canceling her foreign travel | Dems blast 'petty' move | Trump also cancels delegation to Davos | House votes to disapprove of Trump lifting Russia sanction MORE's seat in North Dakota is now rated as lean Republican, and Democrats are defending four other toss-up seats in addition to New Jersey in Montana, Missouri, Indiana and Florida.