New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez appears to be solidifying his lead over businessman and Republican nominee Bob Hugin, according to a new Monmouth University poll that found the Democratic incumbent leading Hugin by 9 points in a standard midterm voter model.

Nearly half, 49 percent, of the 527 likely New Jersey voters surveyed for the poll released Thursday favored Menendez, while Hugin captured just 40 percent support.

The incumbent’s lead expanded to 12 points, 51 to 39 percent, in a statistical model that factored in low turnout and 11 points in a model taking into account a possible surge in turnout in more Democratic areas of the state.

Menendez’s lead is still narrower than some pollsters might expect for a New Jersey Senate race, but it should be enough to lift him to a third term.

“Given the national political climate and the big registration advantage enjoyed by Democrats, you might expect an incumbent senator from New Jersey to be up by 20 points,” Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, said in a statement.

“Hugin was successful in making this one competitive by hammering away at Menendez’s ethical baggage,” Murray said. “But the incumbent has been able to fight back to get the margin into a range that is closer to the norm for New Jersey.”

The Senate Ethics Committee issued a scathing rebuke to Menendez in April for accepting gifts from longtime friend and Florida ophthalmologist Salomon Melgen in exchange for political favors.

The Justice Department filed to dismiss charges against Menendez last winter after an 11-week trial ended in a hung jury in the fall.

Melgen was convicted for defrauding Medicare to the tune of millions of dollars.

Hugin has sought to make Menendez’s ethical challenges and ties to Melgen a central part of his campaign pitch.

The Democrat-aligned Senate Majority PAC this week announced that it dropped a $3 million TV ad buy to boost Menendez after some polling in September showed his lead over Hugin dwindling.

One poll had Hugin within 2 points and another had him within 6 midway through September.

But Menendez appears to have rebounded.

 “I bet the Democrat’s Senate Majority PAC wishes it could take back the $3 million being spent in New Jersey right now,” Murray said.

Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the New Jersey Senate race Likely Democratic.

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A new internal poll shows California Rep. Mimi Walters with a 50 percent share of the vote, leading Democratic challenger Katie Porter by 4 points. 

The incumbent’s 50-46 lead is within the poll’s +/-4.9% margin of error.

Porter, a University of California, Irvine professor, hopes to unseat Walters, who is seeking her third term in the 45th District. Walters’ is one of seven districts won by Hillary Clinton in 2016 currently being represented by Republican legislators. Clinton won the district by 5 points.

The poll ran from October 14 through October 17, just as Porter launched a new television ad hitting Walters for her vote in favor of last year’s GOP tax bill.

“The Walters-Trump tax plan gives away trillions to big corporations and Washington special interests, adds trillions more to the national debt, and threatens deep cuts to Medicare and Social Security,” the narrator says in the 30-second spot. “And Walters and Trump raised taxes on Orange County families to pay for it.”

Walters’ campaign consultant Dave Gilliard called the congresswoman a “tax-fighter and government reformer” in a statement accompanying the poll.

Public Opinion Strategies conducted the poll, surveying 400 likely voters by phone evenly split between cell phones and landlines.

Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the race for the 45th District a Toss-up

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Sen. Lindsey Graham is very bullish on the chances of Republicans expanding their Senate majority on Election Day in three weeks.

“We’re off to the races. Everything is breaking our way,” the South Carolina senator said Tuesday night. 

Speaking at a meeting of the Heritage Foundation President’s Club in downtown Washington, Graham said Republicans of different stripes were united in the aftermath of new Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh’s confirmation process.

“Run up the numbers here. If we can hold Nevada, Arizona and Tennessee — and I think Tennessee is done — this lady running in Arizona is giving aid and comfort to the enemy, I think, [Democratic Rep. Kyrsten] Sinema is, and we’ve got a fighter pilot and I like her chances. Heller is awesome,” Graham said.

“You’ve got Missouri, Indiana and North Dakota where we’re breaking away. You’ve got Rick Scott doing a great job in Florida,” he added. “This could be really a big night for us.”

Asked what the room full of conservative activists should be doing to help get more of President Donald Trump’s judicial nominations confirmed, Graham said they should be sending even more money to GOP Senate campaigns.

He appeared particularly fired up about the monstrous fundraising haul of Rep. Beto O’Rourke, the Democrat who is challenging GOP Sen. Ted Cruz in Texas.

“Write a check. These people have got more money than they’ve got sense. $38 million for Robert Francis O’Rourke, who apparently was born in an Irish ghetto in Barcelona. This is upside down,” Graham said. “He’s the Hispanic guy running against Cruz. You can’t make this crap up.”

Graham was the warm-up act Tuesday night for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who received a similarly warm response from the conservative Heritage Foundation audience after the Kavanaugh confirmation.

And predictably, the Kentucky Republican was more reserved in his predictions about what might happen on Election Day. McConnell again told a story about the confidence he sensed from New York Sen. Charles E. Schumer, now the minority leader, ahead of the 2016 election.

That year’s Senate map looked much better on paper for the Democrats, while the 2018 one looks much better on paper for McConnell and the Republican Conference.

“It’s best not to fall in love with the map, but we do have a good map,” McConnell said.

As he has done during recent interviews with Roll Call and other news outlets, McConnell said he saw a real uptick in enthusiasm after the Kavanaugh confirmation fight, but he also reiterated the large number of tight races three weeks out.

“We have nip-and-tuck, could go either way races in Arizona, Nevada, Montana, North Dakota, Missouri, Indiana, Tennessee, West Virginia and Florida,” he said. “All of those could go either way.”

ICYMI: Midterm Races Tightening After Trump Defends Kavanaugh and Unleashes on Campaign Trail

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Rep. Markwayne Mullin, R-Okla., a former professional mixed martial arts fighter, challenged lawyer Democratic lawyer Michael Avenatti to “meet him on the mat.”

Avenatti and Donald Trump Jr. have sparred on Twitter in recent weeks over special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation and Avenatti’s rumored presidential ambitions. The rivalry took a surreal turn last week, when Avenatti challenged Trump Jr. to a “three-round mixed martial arts fight” with the proceeds going to charity. 

Avenatti has positioned himself as an antagonist of the Trump administration since taking up the case of Stormy Daniels, a porn actress who seeks to void a nondisclosure agreement signed with the president days before the 2016 election. 

The former cage fighter intervened Tuesday, offering to take on Avenatti himself.

It’s ridiculous that @MichaelAvenatti would even challenge @DonaldJTrumpJr to a fight. But if he’s looking for a publicity stunt, I‘d be more than happy to meet him on the mat. https://t.co/SSmIN6QOHR

 

Mullin’s background as a professional fighter has informed his politics. He’s sponsored legislation that would amend the Muhammad Ali Boxing Reform Act to include the UFC and improve workers protections for fighters. 

Mullin, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, also made headlines on Tuesday in an appearance on Fox News when he called for Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., a possible challenger to Trump in 2020, to apologize for publicizing the results of a genetic test indicating a Native American ancestor. 

“The heritage runs deep in my family,” Mullin said. “For her they’re just stories.”

Some Native American leaders were troubled by Warren’s use of a DNA test to claim Native heritage. The Cherokee Nation said the test was “inappropriate” and hurts the tribe’s interests in a statement Monday night.

Mullin will win an uncontested race in November for a fourth term representing the 2nd District, according to Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales

Watch: Elizabeth Warren Reveals Genetic Test Results and Talks Heritage With Her Family

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President Donald Trump on Tuesday signaled he doesn’t believe Saudi rulers were involved in the suspected murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi after a telephone conversation with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

“Just spoke with the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia who totally denied any knowledge of what took place in their Turkish Consulate,” Trump tweeted. “He was with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo … during the call, and told me that he has already started, and will rapidly expand, a full and complete investigation into this matter. Answers will be forthcoming shortly.”

...during the call, and told me that he has already started, and will rapidly expand, a full and complete investigation into this matter. Answers will be forthcoming shortly.

Trump has also said it was possible Khashoggi was murdered by “rogue killers” while inside the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul. He was last seen entering the building on Oct. 2.

The president’s response to reports of Khashoggi’s apparent demise has been markedly different from members of his own party.

Sen. Lindsey Graham said Tuesday on “Fox & Friends” that he plans to “sanction the hell out of Saudi Arabia.” The South Carolina Republican indicated he was opposed to doing business with Saudi Arabia until the crown prince was ousted.

“Nothing happens in Saudi Arabia without MBS knowing it,” Graham said of the crown prince, who is widely known by his initials. “I can never do business with Saudi Arabia again until we get this behind us.”

Trump spoke on the phone Monday with Saudi King Salman, who also denied involvement in Khashoggi’s disappearance, before dispatching Pompeo to help investigate the matter.

Watch: Trump Suggests ‘Rogue Killers’ Could Be Responsible for Saudi Journalist's Death

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A Democratically-aligned super PAC has pulled its television advertising funding from the competitive district encompassing Omaha, Nebraska, a spokesman confirmed Tuesday.

The money the House Majority PAC had committed to support Democratic candidate Kara Eastman in Nebraska’s 2nd District will now go to support Cindy Axne in Iowa’s 3rd, the spokesman said. Election forecasters have seen that race as a slightly better pick-up opportunity for Democrats. 

Eastman and her Republican opponent Don Bacon released competing polls in recent weeks that each showed Bacon, a retired Air Force brigadier general and first-term House member, with a single-digit lead.

Eastman’s poll, released October 4, found she had 45 percent of the vote compared to 49 percent for Bacon. Bacon’s four-point lead was within the poll’s margin of error.

Bacon’s poll, released Oct. 9, had him leading 49 percent to 40 percent. 

Republicans have held the 2nd District, which encompasses Omaha and contains some of Nebraska’s few pockets of Democratic strength for the better part of the last quarter century — barring two years Democrat Brad Ashford was in office from 2014 to 2016. President Trump carried the district by 3 points in 2016.

Democrats have pegged the district as their best pick-up opportunity in Nebraska. 

Eastman, the founder of a public health non-profit, is part of the Democratic Congressional Committee’s Red to Blue Program, which funnels support to candidates it considers capable of flipping Republican seats. 

Nathan Gonzales with Inside Elections rates the race Lean Republican. Inside Elections rates Axne’s race in Iowa against Rep. David Young a Toss-up.

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The political scandal surrounding Virginia Rep. Scott Taylor’s campaign is still simmering as a state special prosecutor investigates allegations that four of Taylor’s campaign staffers and advisers forged dozens — possibly hundreds — of constituent signatures to help a third-party candidate onto the ballot this November.

The 2nd District Republican continued to pay the four staffers accused of committing the forgeries, a felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a $2,500 fine, his third-quarter filing with the Federal Elections Commission shows.

Taylor also shelled out more than $10,000 in legal fees from his campaign coffers to at least four different law firms in August and September.

Taylor had never paid any of the four law firms prior to the third filing quarter of 2018. The campaign made its first four disbursements toward those apparent legal costs less than a week after Commonwealth of Virginia assigned Roanoke attorney Don Caldwell to investigate the matter as a special prosecutor.

Scott Weldon, a spokesman for Taylor, indicated that the staffers involved in the petition fraud scandal no longer work for the congressman's campaign — even though they were each cut paychecks multiple times after reports of their alleged malfeasance surfaced in early August.

"While we very much look forward to full transparency and truth coming out on this issue, regrettably, our statement with every piece and angle of this story remains the same: we cannot comment due to the ongoing investigation into former campaign staff," Weldon said in a statement.

Taylor, who has claimed he did not know his staffers were forging signatures on petition sheets for independent Shaun Brown, his 2016 Democratic opponent, said shortly after WHRO radio broke the story in early August that he would purge his campaign of any bad actors.

“You have my word that if anyone in my campaign did anything that was wrong, that was illegal, that was inappropriate or something like that, I would fire them in a second,” Taylor said in a Facebook Live broadcast to his supporters on Aug. 6.

Taylor said he would not spare even his “closest advisers, who I wouldn’t want to fire, but I would.” 

That did not appear to be the case based on his FEC filing.

As recently as Sept. 12, more than a month after Caldwell was assigned to investigate the forgeries, Taylor’s campaign doled out “payroll” and “campaign consulting” disbursements to Lauren Creekmore, Roberta Marciano, Daniel Bohner, and Heather Guillot.

A Richmond Circuit Court judge ruled in September to toss out every petition sheet submitted by Creekmore, Marciano, Bohner, and Guillot on Brown’s behalf after he found them “rife with errors, inconsistencies, and forgeries.”

In September, the Democratic Party of Virginia successfully sued the state elections board to remove Brown’s name from the ballot. The DPVA accused Taylor of hatching the forgery scheme to split the Democratic party vote between Brown, the party’s 2016 candidate, and Elaine Luria, its nominee in the upcoming midterm election.

Taylor denied the accusation that he was trying to use Brown to siphon votes away from Luria, saying he was just trying to help a candidate that the DPVA had “disenfranchised.” He did not tell his staff to commit any forgeries, he said, and, if they did, he was not aware.

The Virginia Democrats aren’t buying it and criticized Taylor for retaining staffers who are under investigation.

“The very little that Scott Taylor has told us about this forgery scheme appears to be a lie,” DPVA communications director Jake Rubenstein said in a statement Tuesday.

“Instead of holding his staff accountable and coming clean, he appears to be protecting and rewarding them,” Rubenstein said.

Taylor paid the four staffers accused of submitting the fraudulent signatures a total of $43,559.54 in the third quarter over a series of six payments each, roughly corresponding with a bimonthly paycheck plan, per the congressman’s FEC filing.

Guillot earned $13,500 for campaign consulting; Creekmore and Marciano earned roughly $7,500 each; and Bohner earned $9,000 from consulting while a limited liability corporation associated with his name, Validus, earned $6,000 in legal fees.

In mid-September, internal poll numbers from Luria’s campaign showed Taylor slipping in his bid for a second term.

Luria led the GOP incumbent by 8 points, 51 percent to 43 percent, in the poll conducted by Garin-Hart-Yang Research Group, a lead within the margin of error.

But Taylor appears to have surged back ahead, according to a new poll of likely voters conducted by Christopher Newport University’s Wason Center for Public Policy from Oct. 3 through Oct. 12.

Taylor led Luria, 50 percent to 43 percent, in the survey of 798 likely voters in Virginia’s 2nd District.

President Donald Trump carried the district over Hillary Clinton by 3 points in 2016 while Taylor cruised to a 23-point victory over Brown.

Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the race Tilts Republican.

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