New Jersey Senate: Incumbent Democrat Menendez appears vulnerable in new poll

NEWARK, NJ - SEPTEMBER 06:  U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) speaks to the media as he arrives at federal court for his trial on corruption charges on September 6, 2017 in Newark, New Jersey. Menendez is accused of accepting bribes in regard to his relationship with campaign donor Salomon Melgen, a Florida-based ophthalmologist.  (Photo by Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Getty Images)

Washington (CNN)Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez is in a surprising dead heat with his Republican challenger in New Jersey's Senate race, a new poll finds.

The poll of likely voters, released on Monday by Stockton University, found that Menendez, whose federal corruption trial ended in a mistrial last year, holds a two-point advantage over businessman Bob Hugin -- 45% to 43% -- a split that is within the poll's margin of error.
The poll is the most recent to show a tight race in New Jersey. A Quinnipiac University poll released in late August found Menendez held a six-point lead.
The closer-than-expected margin in recent polls -- combined with Menendez's struggles to emerge from the ethical cloud following last year's federal corruption trial and Hugin's willingness to spend millions of his own money -- moves the race in CNN's ratings from Likely Democratic to Lean Democratic.
    If Menendez loses, Democrats would have an even more difficult path towards controlling the Senate starting in 2019.
    "With a two-point lead falling within the poll's margin of error, the Senate race at this point is up for grabs," said Michael W. Klein, interim executive director of the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Stockton University.
    Much of the race to date has focused on ethics, with Hugin slamming Menendez for a federal corruption trial that has dogged the senator for years. The Department of Justice, after investigating Menendez for nearly five years, charged the senator with conspiracy, bribery and honest services fraud related to allegedly abusing the power of his office.
    But after a New Jersey jury was deadlocked in 2017, the case ended in a mistrial. And in early 2018, the Department of Justice filed to dismiss the charges against Menendez, a decision that was seen as a win for the senator's re-election chances.
    According to the poll, the corruption charges against Menendez still hang over his campaign, with 59% of voters saying the charges are "extremely important" or "significant factor" in how they will vote in November.
    Hugin touted the poll as validation on Monday.
    "Whether you're a Democrat, Republican, or Independent, voters want a Senator who will put New Jersey first and represent them with honor and integrity," Hugin said in a statement.
    Democrats largely dismissed the poll and conveyed confidence, arguing that it under sampled young people and Latino voters and noting that they expected the race to get close given Hugin, a millionaire chair of a pharmaceutical company, has spent close to $10 million on television ads, according to Kantar Media/CMAG tracking data.
    Joel Benenson, Menendez's pollster, tweeted that the poll "only had 24 people aged 18-29 and 24 Latinos in sample of 578, both key Dem constituencies that are too small to weigh properly."
      "We knew this would be a competitive race given the millions greedy drug company CEO Bob Hugin spent on TV he made off the backs of cancer victims and their families, but we are confident Senator Menendez will prevail on Election Day," the Menendez campaign said in a statement.
      Democrats are keeping an eye on New Jersey, however. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, after the Quinnipiac poll showed a tight race, made a six-figure coordinated ad buy on Menendez's behalf in late August, according to a committee aide.