New Jersey Senate: Menendez Indictment Creates Democratic Headache

by Jacob Rubashkin September 22, 2023 · 12:29 PM EDT

New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez was indicted on three federal charges Friday, nearly a year after news first broke of a possible investigation into the powerful Democratic lawmaker. In a 39-page indictment, the Department of Justice alleges Menendez and his wife accepted bribes and committed fraud and extortion in their dealings with three New Jersey businessmen and a coterie of Egyptian government officials.

The new Menendez indictment injects significant uncertainty into the 2024 New Jersey Senate race, which was not previously expected to be competitive. The Garden State is not hospitable to the GOP at the federal level; in 2020 Joe Biden defeated President Donald Trump there by 16 points, 57-41 percent, and Republicans have not won a Senate race since 1972.

Despite increasing levels of partisanship and a decline in split-ticket voting, corruption scandals can still make otherwise-comfortable incumbents vulnerable — just ask former New York and California Reps. Chris Collins and Duncan Hunter.

Or ask Menendez, who saw the effects of legal trouble in his last race too.

In 2015, federal prosecutors alleged that Menendez had accepted gifts from a friend in exchange for taking actions on his behalf. When the case finally went to trial in 2017, the jury deadlocked and a judge declared a mistrial. The government declined to retry Menendez, though his friend was later convicted on unrelated charges (and was ultimately pardoned by Trump in 2021).

In 2018, a defiant Menendez sought re-election. After winning a closer-than-expected primary against an unknown, underfunded opponent, Menendez defeated GOP businessman Bob Hugin in the general election by just 11 points, 55-44 percent.

There’s a lot we still don’t know about how the next 14 months will play out. Menendez has never been the type to go quietly — he famously promised retribution against his political enemies as he left the courthouse following his mistrial six years ago. Following Friday’s indictment, he released a statement calling the allegations “baseless” and politically motivated, and indicated that he would not resign.

If he decides to tough it out, Menendez could face a serious primary challenge from one of the many ambitious Democrats in the state. Given how poorly he fared in the 2018 primary, winning just 60-40 percent over Lisa McCormick (and that was after he beat the charges), he could be in serious trouble against a well-known, well-funded Democrat taking him on while he’s currently under indictment.

If he were to make it past a primary, Menendez could also be vulnerable in a general election against the right GOP opponent (a well-funded moderate, perhaps in the vein of 2021 GOP gubernatorial nominee Jack Ciattarelli). 

Menendez’s indictment also complicates national Democrats’ already tenuous path to maintaining their majority. In 2018, Democratic outside groups including the Senate Majority PAC and the DSCC had to spend more than $10 million boosting Menendez, who faced an onslaught of negative ads from his wealthy opponent. That was money that national Democrats could have spent on more naturally competitive races, including the four Senate incumbents who lost re-election.

This year, Democrats are almost entirely on defense, with three major vulnerabilities in West Virginia, Ohio, and Montana, and vulnerable incumbents and open seats in a half-dozen other competitive presidential states. If the party has to pour millions into the most expensive media markets in the country, just to bail out a senator running in a state Biden will carry by double digits, that could have serious ramifications for their ability to defend incumbents elsewhere.

That’s why Menedez will likely see increasing pressure to resign, or at the very least not seek re-election — pressure that would likely have to come from fellow Democrats such as Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, if not Biden himself. 

If Menendez resigns, Murphy would have the opportunity to appoint someone directly to the seat, who could then seek a full term next fall. If the incumbent forgoes re-election but stays in the Senate, there could be a heavily contested primary to succeed him.

There is no shortage of Democrats who could easily step in as the party’s standard-bearer and hold the seat with little trouble. Reps. Mikie Sherrill, Josh Gottheimer, and Andy Kim are all battle-tested campaigners and strong fundraisers.

Menendez isn’t the first New Jersey senator this century to put Democrats in an electoral bind. Back in 2002, Democrats held a one-seat majority in the Senate, and Democrat Robert Torricelli insisted on running for re-election after being cleared in a federal campaign finance criminal investigation. The issue dogged Torricelli all year, and after polls showed him losing badly to his unknown GOP challenger, he dropped out of the race just weeks before Election Day, allowing Democrats to replace him on the ballot with former Sen. Frank Lautenberg, who won by double digits. 

Explaining his decision at a press conference, Torricelli told reporters, "There are times in life when you rise above self. I will not be responsible for a loss of the Democratic majority in the U.S. Senate.”

There are ways for Democrats to keep this race firmly in their column, but the latest news puts the seat at more risk. We’re changing our rating of the race from Solid Democratic to Likely Democratic.