Bob Menendez finally gets some good polling news in his close Senate race, but there are still warning signs for the embattled New Jersey Democrat

  • The newest poll in the New Jersey Senate race shows a more comfortable lead for embattled Sen. Bob Menendez after several surveys showed a tighter race.
  • Voters have highly unfavorable views of the senator following corruption allegations against him, according to polls.
  • Republican challenger Bob Hugin has spent heavily to hammer Menendez on corruption accusations.
  • The race could have massive stakes for control of the Senate if Hugin can upset the senator.
Sen. Robert Menendez and Senatorial candidate Robert Hugin. 
Getty Images | CNBC
Sen. Robert Menendez and Senatorial candidate Robert Hugin. 

Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., finally got some good news Wednesday in his uncomfortably close race against well-funded Republican challenger Bob Hugin.

The senator leads the former pharmaceutical executive by 11 percentage points, 53 percent to 42 percent, among likely voters, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released Wednesday. Menendez has a nearly 20-point edge among women and garners support from 93 percent of his party's likely voters despite major image problems fueled by corruption accusations, the survey found.

The result is likely to allow Menendez and national Democrats to let out a sigh of relief — however small — after two other surveys in recent days showed a tighter race. A Fairleigh Dickinson University poll released Wednesday found a 5-percentage-point edge among likely voters for the senator. A Stockton University survey of likely voters found a slimmer edge of 2 percentage points.

The Quinnipiac poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.1 percentage points, while the Fairleigh Dickinson and Stockton surveys both have margins of error of plus or minus 4.3 percentage points.

Menendez is still in for a fight, however. Electoral trends favor Democrats this year, and New Jersey hasn't elected a Republican senator in more than three decades. Yet Menendez has just an 11-point lead in the most favorable poll for him of late. By comparison, polls have found Democratic Sens. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin often leading by double digits in their re-election bids, and those are in states President Donald Trump carried in 2016.

Voters aren't keen on Menendez, either. Only 34 percent of likely voters view Menendez favorably, versus 53 percent who see him unfavorably, according to the Quinnipiac survey.

"New Jersey likely voters may prefer Sen. Menendez over Republican challenger Bob Hugin, but they certainly make it clear they are not fond of Menendez," said Mary Snow, a polling analyst for the Quinnipiac University poll.

Menendez's popularity has suffered as allegations of corruption tail the senator. Hugin's campaign, which is largely financed by the wealthy former Celgene CEO himself, has saturated the state's airwaves with ads hammering Menendez's ethics record. Voters largely see Hugin favorably so far. Yet he has faced attacks over Celgene reaching a $280 million legal settlement over its cancer drug marketing.

The race has huge stakes for national Democrats. The party cannot afford to lose any seat as it tries to stop Republicans from expanding their narrow majority in the chamber. The importance of the Senate's partisan breakdown is playing out right now, as Republicans try to secure the 51 votes needed to confirm Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.

Menendez won his party's nomination with an underwhelming primary victory and aims to salvage Democratic voters who are wary of him after his federal corruption trial last year, which ended in a mistrial. He was accused of exchanging gifts from a wealthy Florida eye doctor for political favors. Earlier this year, the Senate Ethics Committee "severely admonished" Menendez.

Menendez's campaign declined to comment on the new Quinnipiac poll.

Hugin's campaign, meanwhile, chose to focus on other polls showing a tighter race. "As voters learn more about Menendez's disgraceful record, we're confident remaining undecided voters will support Bob Hugin on Election Day," Stacy Schuster, the Republican's campaign manager, told CNBC.

In the Fairleigh Dickinson poll, Menendez has a 6 point edge over Hugin among likely voters. Nearly one in five likely voters — including 22 percent of Democrats, 6 percent of Republicans and 42 percent of independents — are undecided, the survey said.

As Hugin boasts of bipartisan bona fides and carefully distances himself from the unpopular Trump, Menendez has struggled to break away five weeks before the November election.

"It looks like Hugin still has room to define himself to voters. As for Menendez, having a third of likely Democratic voters with unfavorable opinions about him is complicating his re-election efforts. He has some work to do in his own party if he is to expand his margin before November," said Krista Jenkins, director of the Fairleigh Dickinson poll.

Although Menendez's results in the Democratic primary were unexpectedly dismal, Democratic voters are expected to show up in the November election to counter the risk of a Republican stealing the seat. The senator also has adequate time to unleash attack ads on his opponent, experts said.

"There's no denying that this is tighter than one would expect for an incumbent senator. But, as the undecided numbers show, there's still time for either candidate to capture more support," Jenkins said.

On Monday, a Stockton University poll of likely voters showed Menendez leading Hugin by only two points, well within the margin of error. It also found 52 percent of voters viewed him unfavorably.

Bob Hugin, a Republican candidate running in New Jersey primary election for U.S. Senate.
Julio Cortez | AP
Bob Hugin, a Republican candidate running in New Jersey primary election for U.S. Senate.

The Stockton poll, however, doesn't reflect significant representation from Hispanic and younger voters. Reliably Democratic Hudson County, where Menendez built his political base, only comprised 1 percent of the poll's respondents despite being the fourth most populated of New Jersey's 21 counties. Stockton's pollsters said it was difficult to reach Hudson County voters and that they weighted race and ethnicity to compensate for the underrepresented groups.

"The comparatively older, less diverse electorate that is represented in this poll is not the same New Jersey that I believe strongly we will see on November 6, and that will re-elect Senator Menendez," said Elizabeth Gilbert, the executive director of the New Jersey Democratic State Committee. "The energy and enthusiasm in the progressive grassroots all across our state right now is unprecedented."

Also in Menendez's favor: Republican voters make up a smaller part of the state's undecided voter base, and there is little evidence of Hugin having cross-party appeal. Just 4 percent of likely Democratic voters say they'll vote for Hugin, according to the FDU poll.

"If Menendez is able to capture the support of undecided Democrats, plus some of the independents, he will be able to decisively pull ahead of Hugin by November. It will be harder for Hugin to do the same," Jenkins said.