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Democrats Really Could Lose That New Jersey Senate Seat

New Jersey has given America a lot of great things: juicy tomatoes every summer, some of the best reality shows known to mankind, and Bruce Springsteen’s beautiful tortured soul. I am personally indebted to the state, having learned how to put eyeliner on the inside of my lower lid from a New Jersey girl.

This year, it’s giving us something else: an unexpectedly close U.S. Senate race — yet another exciting little storyline in a year of news cycles that won’t quit. It is not a development that Democrats are happy about.

New Jersey’s race pits Democratic incumbent Sen. Bob Menendez against Republican Bob Hugin. The “classic” version of our model gives Menendez about an 8 in 9 chance of winning the race — not bad, you might say! And then you’d look at the recent polls and maybe not say that quite as loudly. A Fairleigh Dickinson University poll out Wednesday shows Menendez leading 43 percent to 37 percent among likely voters, within the margin of error. Two other recent surveys — one by Vox Populi Communications and one by Stockton University — also showed the race within the low single digits.

If you consider that Menendez won his 2012 election by 19.5 points, you can start to see why Democrats are getting nervous about the race. So actually you might say, not great, Bob!

FiveThirtyEight Senate forecast update for Oct. 3, 2018

Of course, a lot of things are in Menendez’s favor. He’s an incumbent, and while he’s weathered a scandal recently — more on that in a second — he’s running in a state with a political environment that’s incredibly favorable to Democrats. New Jersey is 13 points more Democratic than the rest of the country.

So what’s potentially going wrong for Menendez? See the aforementioned scandal. Menendez was indicted on multiple counts of bribery, conspiracy and making false statements for taking inappropriate gifts from a doctor friend and then intervening on the doctor’s behalf with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid services. (The doctor friend in question overbilled the agency to the tune of $8.9 million.) While his 2017 court case ended in a mistrial, his reputation took a massive hit. The Senate Ethics Committee formally condemned Menendez, and Morning Consult ranked him as one of America’s 10 least popular senators for much of 2017 and 2018.

The people of New Jersey have not taken kindly to their senator’s alleged misdeeds. In the Fairleigh Dickinson poll, 53 percent of likely voters had an unfavorable opinion of Menendez. Stockton University found about the same thing — 54 percent viewed the senator unfavorably. (Polls from 2012, when Menendez was last on the ballot, show his unfavorable rating in the low 20s.)

One of Menendez’s most glaring problems is that these surveys find that a number of Democratic voters are still undecided: 22 percent in the Fairleigh Dickinson poll and 14 percent in the Stockton poll. The scandal is one obvious reason that Democratic Party voters might be peeved at Menendez, but Hugin has also been running as a moderate Republican, something of an anachronism in the Trump age. “I’m pro choice, pro marriage equality and I strongly support equal pay for equal work,” the Republican says in one ad.

As Election Day approaches, our forecast will begin to give more and more weight to the polls, and less to the non-polling indicators that tilt in Menendez’s direction. If we continue to get poll results like the ones we’ve seen in the past week, the model will get more pessimistic about his chances. Case in point: Our “Lite” forecast, which mostly just looks at the polls and does not rely on those non-polling factors, gives Hugin a solid 1 in 4 chance of winning.

If Menendez really is in trouble in New Jersey, that’s one more strike against the Democrats’ already long odds — 2 in 7 — at taking back control of the Senate. Around the rest of the country, Democrats in red states are battling for survival or to win seats held by Republican incumbents. The last thing the party needs is a supposedly sure bet slipping away.

CORRECTION (Oct. 4, 2018, 9:50 a.m.): An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified the Fairleigh Dickinson poll on third reference as being a “Fairfield” poll.

Clare Malone is a former senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight.