Just How Much Trouble Is Bob Menendez In?

The two-term incumbent carries with him the distinct whiff of scandal, and New Jersey voters can smell it.

Sen. Bob Menendez speaks during a news briefing at the U.S. Capitol.
Sen. Bob Menendez speaks during a news briefing at the U.S. Capitol.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

The list of Democratic senators being forced to play defense in the midterms runs a dozen names long, but one stands out for his unique predicament: Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey.

Unlike his 10 colleagues up for re-election in places Donald Trump won, Menendez’s home state went for Hillary Clinton by 14 points, marking the third time in a row and the fifth time in the past six presidential elections that New Jersey has voted for the Democratic nominee by double digits.

But despite that built-in advantage, Menendez is in trouble this fall, far more so than it appeared last November when the Democratic establishment rallied around him after his federal corruption trial ended with a hung jury. He’s still the clear favorite in his race against Republican Bob Hugin, a former pharmaceutical executive who’s pouring millions of his own money into his campaign, but there’s no mistaking this one for the snoozer it would be if Menendez weren’t still carrying with him the distinct whiff of scandal.

The latest warning signal for Democrats came Wednesday via a new poll from Quinnipiac University, which was the third major survey in a row, dating back to mid-May, to find Menendez’s lead in the single digits and within the margin of error. Yes, Menendez still leads by 8.3 points in RealClearPolitics’ rolling average, but that number includes a Monmouth survey from early April that had him up a whopping 21 points. His 6-point lead in the new Quinnipiac poll, meanwhile, is a far cry from the 17-point advantage he had the last time those same pollsters asked the question, back in early March.

Polls can only tell us so much, and sporadic statewide polling even less, but what these surveys are saying shouldn’t come as a shock. Not after Menendez’s lackluster primary showing in June, when his challenger—a first-time candidate with almost no money, no endorsements, and no campaign appearances—captured 38 percent of the Democratic vote.

Of course, Menendez spent more than two years battling a federal indictment related to his high-flying friendship with Salomon Melgen, a Florida eye doctor. Last year, jurors heard nine weeks of testimony describing Menendez’s lavish trips with Melgen, who covered the costs for private jets and hotel rooms at the same time the senator was advocating for Melgen in a dispute over his overbilling of Medicare. Menendez’s case eventually ended in a mistrial in November. Melgen was later sentenced to 17 years in prison after being found guilty of $73 million in Medicare fraud. The government decided not to retry Menendez, but the Senate Ethics Committee ordered Menendez to (eventually) repay the cost of any outstanding gifts and “severely admonished” him for his behavior earlier this year.

Making matters worse for Menendez is his opponent—or more specifically, his opponent’s money. Hugin secured the backing of the GOP early in his primary thanks in large part to his $84 million personal fortune, which he’s used to great effect this year. Hugin has already given his campaign more than $15 million, and he entered July with roughly $1.5 million more on hand than the incumbent.

It’s not all doom and gloom for Menendez, however. His state has roughly 900,000 more registered Democrats than registered Republicans, and it’s one thing for Democrats to cast a protest vote in the primary and quite another to vote Republican in the general. New Jersey voters don’t like Trump, and they hate the GOP tax law, which disproportionately affected high-tax states like theirs with a cap on the deduction for state and local taxes known as SALT. Meanwhile, Hugin has his own ethical blemishes from his time in the private sector, and the pharmaceutical industry in which he made his fortune has the rare distinction of polling about as poorly with the public as the federal government.

The problem for Democrats, though, is that every dollar and every second Hugin forces them to spend on Menendez is one they can’t spend playing defense in red states or playing offense in a trio of winnable races, at least two of which they need to gain control of the Senate. A victory in New Jersey, then, won’t come cheap—if it comes at all.