Sen. Bob Menendez holds a razor-thin four-point lead over his likely Republican rival in November’s general election, according to a new poll, indicating the New Jersey Democrat is still suffering from a post-corruption-trial hangover.
Menendez, who successfully beat back federal bribery charges only to face a bipartisan admonishment by the Senate Ethics Committee, has the support of 28 percent of registered voters in his reelection bid, according to the latest survey from Fairleigh Dickinson University. The likely Republican nominee, former pharmaceutical executive Bob Hugin, recorded support at 24 percent among the 856 people surveyed.
The new poll results are significantly worse for Menendez than two previous surveys, both of which had him up by double digits over Hugin. In April, Monmouth University recorded a 21-point lead for Menendez. A month earlier, Quinnipiac University released a survey that had him up 17 points.
“Senator Menendez’s recent federal trial and bipartisan censure by his Senate colleagues are clearly taking their toll,” Krista Jenkins, the director of the poll, said in a statement that accompanied the poll results. “It’s not uncommon for incumbents to cruise to reelection, but these numbers suggest he’s going to have to woo voters like he hasn’t had to in a long time.”
Menendez, New Jersey’s senior senator, escaped legally unscathed last year when a jury could not reach a verdict on any of the 13 charges alleging he accepted gifts from his friend and co-defendant, Florida eye doctor Salomon Melgen, in exchange for official favors and that he failed to disclose those gifts on his Senate financial disclosure documents. The charges were officially dismissed in January after the Justice Department said it would not seek another trial.
But the Senate Ethics Committee concluded last month that Menendez did break federal law, issuing a scathing letter of censure and ordering him to pay back the value of the gifts he received from Melgen. The latest poll was conducted after the admonishment, which brought the accusations against the senator back into the headlines.
The episode continues to take a toll on the senator, with 39 percent of those surveyed saying they view Menendez unfavorably and 32 percent saying they view him favorably. That’s actually an improvement from the 57 percent unfavorable rating he recorded last year. But he still remains out of favor with some in his own party, with a fifth of Democrats saying they view him unfavorably.
To be sure, it’s still early, and that was reflected in the poll results, which showed 46 percent of registered voters are undecided about their general-election choice for the Senate seat.
And more than half of those surveyed — 57 percent — said they had never heard of Hugin, the former chief executive and chairman of Celgene, a New Jersey-based drugmaker. About a fifth of those polled said they had a favorable opinion of him, while 10 percent had an unfavorable opinion. This is the first time FDU has polled Hugin.
It’s good for Menendez, Jenkins said, that the ethics censure came in April and not later in the year.
“He has time before November to reclaim a more favorable place in the heart of his constituents,” Jenkins said. “Both men will pick up considerably more support as the race progresses, as the undecideds begin to break for the candidate who shares their partisan leanings. With New Jersey a more Democratic state, Menendez is likely to pick up more of this group than Hugin.”
The FDU poll, conducted between May 16 and 21, has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.