Is the New Jersey Senate race a toss-up? The scandals of Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez — including a near-miss in federal court — have dominated the race, and the Cook Political Report has now moved the race from lean Democratic to toss-up just 11 days before the election. Democrats already face a tough Senate map, and it would be bad news for them if they were to lose a seat in a state that is 13 points more Democratic than the nation.1
But “toss-up” seems too generous to Menendez’s Republican opponent, Bob Hugin. Why? The polls. Despite having one of the worst approval ratings of any senator, Menendez has led every single poll of the race.
Now, to be clear, the margins in those surveys have varied: Sometimes Menendez led by as few as 2 points, other times by double digits. But if the race were very close, we would expect at least one or two polls to give Hugin a slight edge. That could still happen, but it hasn’t yet.
As of Friday afternoon, the FiveThirtyEight Senate model’s Lite forecast, which relies on just state and national polls, gives Menendez a 7 in 8 chance of winning re-election, or 87 percent. To put this in perspective, we give Republicans a 5 in 6 chance (83 percent) of winning Mississippi’s special election — and no one is calling that a toss-up.2 The other two versions of our Senate model — the Classic, which adds in race fundamentals, and the Deluxe, which adds fundamentals and expert handicapping — put Menendez’s chances at 9 in 10 or better. But while the Menendez scandals have helped Hugin’s chances — we account for scandals in our fundamentals-based forecasts — the effect (R+8.2) doesn’t appear large enough to overcome the Democratic leans in the other components of the fundamentals.
If the national environment were more like, say, 2010 — an excellent Republican cycle — then Hugin’s chances probably would be stronger. Just consider Republican Mark Kirk’s 2010 victory in Illinois, a deeply blue state3 that also had a raging Democratic scandal. After Barack Obama won the presidency in 2008, Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich used the appointment process for filling Obama’s Senate seat to enrich himself.4 With that scandalous backdrop and the strongly GOP-leaning national environment, Kirk won the open-seat contest against Democrat Alexi Giannoulias by fewer than 2 percentage points.5
But 2018 is not like 2010. In a blue state and a favorable Democratic environment, Menendez remains favored to win. A loss is within the realm of possibility, but the race is far from a toss-up.