Corruption trial could roil NJ Senate race

Corruption trial could roil NJ Senate race
© Getty

Sen. Robert MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezIn judge's 2010 Senate trial, Menendez was guilty of hypocrisy Excused Menendez juror: 'I don't think he did anything wrong' We don't need a terrorist attack to know diversity program has to go MORE ongoing corruption case could upend the New Jersey Democrat’s reelection bid in 2018, with the longtime politician scheduled to go to court this fall.

The Supreme Court delivered another blow this week to the embattled senator when it refused to dismiss the case. The trial is scheduled to begin about a year before the midterm elections.

Federal prosecutors charged Menendez, who has pleaded not guilty, in April 2015 on 14 criminal counts, including conspiracy to commit bribery.

Menendez is expected to head to trial on Sept. 6,facing a potential criminal conviction even as he would normally be preparing a re-election bid.

“It makes it very difficult to campaign if you’re on trial,” said Ross Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University. 

ADVERTISEMENT
The case centers on Menendez’s relationship with Salomon Melgen, a Florida ophthalmologist and political donor. The Department of Justice’s investigation alleges that Melgen bribed Menendez with gifts, including the use of private jets and Caribbean villas. Menendez allegedly failed to report any of those gifts from 2007 to 2012. 

In return, Menendez helped Melgen — who faces his own charges — obtain immigrant visas for his “foreign girlfriends” and was involved in a Medicare overbilling claim related to the doctor, according to prosecutors.

Still, Menendez and his team insist that he will be vindicated in his trial and are going full steam ahead on his reelection race with unwavering support from New Jersey Democrats.

"Senator Menendez remains highly confident that he will be vindicated come September,” Menendez adviser Michael Soliman said in a statement to The Hill. “He fully intends to run for a third term next year and do so aggressively.” 

“He continues to enjoy the respect of his colleagues in Congress and his support among Democrats both nationally and across New Jersey remains as strong as ever."

So far, Menendez still has the loyalty of top New Jersey Democrats. And one strategist says that many New Jersey observers speculate that Menendez was indicted for his outspoken criticism of two of former President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaOvernight Cybersecurity: What we learned from Carter Page's House Intel testimony | House to mark up foreign intel reform law | FBI can't access Texas shooter's phone | Sessions to testify at hearing amid Russia scrutiny Russian social media is the modern-day Trojan horse Trump records robo-call for Gillespie: He'll help 'make America great again' MORE’s policies: the Iranian nuclear deal and the normalization of relations with Cuba.

“The reality is that I think that many people in the state looked at this indictment as being politically motivated on the part of the Obama administration,” said Brigid Harrison, a political science professor at Montclair State University, who moderated the a 2002 Senate debate in the state debate.

“Particularly given the context that [Menendez] is one of very, very few members of the US Senate of the party of the president who have been indicted historically.”

Democrats’ commitment to Menendez has put potential successors for his seat in a holding pattern as they await the trial’s outcome. Many of the names floated as potential successors have even rallied behind the senator.

“I don’t think there’s going to be a rush to challenge him,” Baker said. “I think there’s probably more of a wait-and-see attitude. He’s a pretty important figure in NJ politics.”

“I think that people don’t want to come in too hastily. It’s still a little bit unseemly.”

Menendez has generally maintained his prominence in New Jersey politics and the Senate in the face of the indictment. After he was charged, Menendez’s popularity temporarily dipped and he voluntarily left his post as ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that year. But he still enjoys widespread support from his Democratic colleagues, including fellow New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker.

Menendez has been a mainstay in Washington for more than two decades. He served in the House from 1993 to 2006, and then successfully ran for his first Senate term. Menendez won reelection in 2012 by nearly 20 points.

"Up until now, Sen. Menendez has held up quite well," Baker said. "He's not been shunned by his colleagues. I think he's still as prominent as he was before this all started."

But any conviction could alter the dynamics of the Senate race, where Menendez is currently expected to cruise to a third term in the deep blue state.

In the 2016 election, two Democratic House members facing corruption charges lost their seats. Former Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-Pa.) lost a primary for his seat and later resigned after his conviction. And former Rep. Corrine BrownCorrine BrownGenuine veteran charities face a challenge beating the fakes Former Florida rep found guilty of tax evasion, fraud Corruption trial could roil NJ Senate race MORE (D-Fla.) also lost her primary after an indictment.

A possible conviction could also prompt calls for Menendez to step down. If Menendez resigned before Gov. Chris Christie left office in January 2018, the GOP governor would be tasked with appointing a replacement who would likely be a fellow Republican.

No Democratic challengers have materialized yet, but several names have been floated as possible successors in the event that Menendez resigns.

Rep. Donald Norcross (D-NJ) has been floated as a potential successor. But last month, he co-chaired a fundraiser for Menendez with his brother George Norcross, a powerful figure in state politics, according to Politico

Following Menendez’s indictment, former Sen. Bob Torricelli had looked interested in the seat, but state politicians slammed him for behind-the-scenes maneuvering. Torricelli, who vacated his seat in 2002 over an ethics controversy, has since downplayed those rumors and stood by Menendez.

Even with Menendez’s looming trial, Republican strategists in the state still see taking the Senate seat as a steep uphill fight for the party in a race that still favors Democrats.

New Jersey Republicans haven’t held a Senate seat since 1972. GOP strategists point to history being on Democrats’ side, as well as registration numbers that significantly favor Democrats. Plus, Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonGOP rushes to cut ties to Moore Papadopoulos was in regular contact with Stephen Miller, helped edit Trump speech: report Bannon jokes Clinton got her ‘ass kicked’ in 2016 election MORE won the state by double digits in 2016.

“I don’t really see that harming Democrats’ chances,” said Carl Golden, a veteran NJ GOP strategist. “I hope Republicans aren’t dancing in the streets over potential chances about the U.S. Senate seat … at this point.”

But if Menendez resigns and is replaced by a Republican appointee, the new GOP senator would then be running as an incumbent. Republican contenders whose names have circulated include state Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr., who ran against Menendez in 2006 and was defeated by 9 points.

State Sen. Joe Kyrillos is retiring from the Legislature after 30 years and has said he won’t “close the door”on running for elected office in the future, though he didn’t specifically name the 2018 Senate race. Kyrillos lost a Senate bid against Menendez in 2012.

Other potential Republican contenders include Assembly GOP leader Jon Brammick and U.S. House members like Rep. Tom MacArthur (R-NJ).

Menendez’s September trial coincides with the final stretch of the state’s gubernatorial race in November, meaning that the high-profile governor’s race could overshadow talk about potential Senate challengers until the Nov. 7 race to replace Christie wraps up.