A poll released Wednesday is the latest to show New Jersey, a state that hasn’t elected a Republican to the U.S. Senate since 1972, might have a legitimate race on its hands this year.

The Quinnipiac University poll, which measured Democratic U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez at 43 percent and Republican challenger Bob Hugin at 37 percent, is the third straight poll showing a competitive matchup. The others found Menendez with leads of 2 points and 4 points.

Quinnipiac polling analyst Mary Snow said Menendez led by 17 points in the university’s last poll in March. Since then, Menendez has been admonished by the Senate Ethics Committee and blanketed by a months-long barrage of negative ads from Hugin and GOP allies.

“Up until this week, Republican challenger Bob Hugin largely had the airwaves to himself, attacking Sen. Menendez. Now Sen. Menendez is beginning to run ads of his own,” Snow said.

Just 29 percent of registered voters say they have a favorable opinion of Menendez, with 47 percent viewing the senator unfavorably. His job approval figures are slightly better, though still a net negative.

Hugin is viewed favorable by 27 percent of voters and unfavorably by 20 percent, while 54 percent haven’t yet heard enough about him to have formed an opinion.

“Going forward, what will that opinion be of Bob Hugin now that Sen. Menendez is also airing attack ads and calling into question his ethics,” Snow said.

Though Menendez’s trial on corruption charges ended with a hung jury last year, he was still admonished by his colleagues. Forty-nine percent of voters said they think he was involved in serious wrongdoing, up from 38 percent in March.

Menendez is seeking to raise questions about Hugin’s ethics with a new TV ad hammering him over drug-price profits achieved as chief executive of the biopharmaceutical company Celgene.

Given five choices, New Jersey voters aren’t making taxes or healthcare their top priorities in determining how to vote in the Senate race, Snow said.

“Voters are saying right now that their No. 1 issue is ethics in government,” Snow said.

Ethics was chosen by 25 percent – with Democrats placing a higher priority on the issue than Republicans. Ethics was the top priority of independents, while Democrats put a slightly higher emphasis on healthcare and Republicans putting taxes first on their list.

“That may not bode well for either candidate because there are questions on both sides,” Snow said. “So New Jersey voters are sending that message that ethics in government matters to them.”

Live interviewers from Quinnipiac polled 908 New Jersey registered voters by phone between Aug. 15 and 20. A sample of that size yields a margin of error of +/- 4.6 percentage points.

The election is Nov. 6.

New Jersey: Decoded cuts through the cruft and gets to what matters in New Jersey news and politics. Follow on Facebook and Twitter.

Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5 and the editor of New Jersey: Decoded. Follow @NJDecoded on Twitter and Facebook. Contact him at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com

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