Six weeks ago, RealClearPolitics called the Senate race in New Jersey “surprisingly close,” but it didn’t look like a toss-up. Still, it prompted a $3 million intervention from Chuck Schumer’s PAC in mid-October to shore up Robert Menendez’ bid for re-election in a state he won by 18 points in 2012. So how’s that working out ten days later? Badly, at least according to the Cook Political Report:
There is an addition to the Toss Up column as the race in New Jersey moves there from the Lean Democratic column. The contest isn’t about anything else but Democratic U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez and his ethics problems. His opponent, pharmaceutical CEO Bob Hugin, has outspent the incumbent, $27.7 million to $11.8 million, according to the pre-election FEC report, and most of Hugin’s money has funded television ads. The Senate Majority PAC, the Democrats’ Senate super PAC, has now invested nearly $6.5 million in the race, including a $3 million advertising buy this week. This investment levels the playing field somewhat, but Hugin still holds a very definitive advantage on television.
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. 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.
It’s been clear for a while that Menendez is in trouble this cycle, which may only come as a surprise to Democratic leadership that didn’t push him out when they had the chance. Hillary Clinton won the state by 14 points two years ago, and almost any other Democrat except the one who barely managed to avoid conviction in federal court for corruption. Rather than press Menendez to resign once Phil Murphy took office in January, allowing the Democratic governor to appoint a replacement, Senate Democrats doubled down by pouring money into Menendez’ coffers. That’s turning out to be a predictably bad investment.
However, it’s not clear exactly why Cook has made this into a toss-up, either. RCP’s polling aggregation shows no new data in the last ten days. In the three most recent polls, Menendez has led by five (Rutgers-Eagleton), seven (Quinnipiac), and nine points (Monmouth). Only in the Eagleton poll has Menendez’ lead over Hugin been within the margin of error, and his level of support has been 51%, 51%, and 49%, respectively. Those aren’t bad numbers for an incumbent, especially in a state dominated by his own party. Normally, one might even question a “leans” designation with these numbers.
So what gives? We should ask Cook, but we might also want to ask Schumer. Even after dropping $3 million into what should have been a safe race two weeks ago, his PAC spent another $3 million this week:
CNN moved the race from Likely to Lean Democratic earlier this month.
— Dan Merica (@merica) October 25, 2018
Guy Benson called this “flop sweat” earlier today, and it does appear that Democrats are indeed sweating this one out. The analysts at Cook may simply be reacting to the Democrats’ own reaction, which presumably isn’t predicated on the most recent three public polls. If they’re dropping $6 million or more into New Jersey in the last two weeks, it’s not because Menendez has this locked up.
After all this, Menendez had better win it. The opportunity costs for the extra funding required to keep him competitive is a spectacular own-goal on Schumer, especially if Menendez ends up narrowly losing a few colleagues in red states that might have benefited from that cash. I wrote about those costs earlier this month at The Week, before Schumer’s interventions:
Bob Menendez, the New Jersey Democrat who beat the rap in a corruption trial earlier this year, finds himself in a shocking neck-and-neck race with political upstart Bob Hugin in the deep-blue Garden State. A new Stockton University poll of likely voters shows Menendez only leading 45 percent to 43 percent in a state Clinton carried 55 to 41 in 2016. Another likely-voter poll from Fairleigh Dickinson gave Menendez a six-point lead, but only 43 percent of the vote — a very low number for an incumbent of the state’s dominant party. No likely-voter poll has given Menendez more than 45 percent support this year.
That’s not a very good omen for a man who won his last election by 19 points. So what’s changed? For one thing, FiveThirtyEight’s Clare Malone points out, the scandal of the corruption trial has corroded Menendez’s standing with voters. He claimed the result vindicated him, but both the Stockton and Fairleigh Dickinson polls put his unfavorable ratings above 50 percent. Almost a quarter of Democratic likely voters in one poll still remain undecided between Menendez and Hugin, who’s running as a pro-choice, pro-same-sex-marriage Republican. Undecideds of any stripe tend to break away from the incumbent as the election approaches, and with unfavorables this high, Menendez may be in for a long night. …
If the catalyst for this enthusiasm is the Kavanaugh confirmation process, it’s also a question of where it will be felt most. That will likely be in the red states Trump carried, which means that those incumbent Senate Democrats that seemed safe a few weeks ago might be in real trouble. Two likely-voter polls taken in North Dakota during the hearings put incumbent Democrat Heidi Heitkamp down double digits to GOP Rep. Kevin Cramer after having spent much of the cycle within the margin of error. Democrat Joe Donnelly still leads in Indiana, but he’s dropped from 51 percent support in an NBC/Marist poll in late August to 43 percent in two successive Fox News likely-voter polls. In Tennessee, where Democrats hoped to swipe a seat from retiring Republican Bob Corker, Democratic Rep. Marsha Blackburn has surged into the lead over former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen.
This makes holding onto the New Jersey seat even more critical for Democrats. To do so, however, the party may have to shift resources into the Garden State that would normally go to defending incumbents in less friendly states or to play offense on the few vulnerable Republican seats up for grabs. Even that might not be enough to stave off an angered Republican base in their home states. The Kavanaugh spectacle and Menendez could spell an end to Democratic hopes of seizing control of the Senate, and ironically, with it the confirmation process for judges and other appointees of Trump in the second half of his term.
If that happens, Schumer will have a lot of explaining to do in a couple of weeks.