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Menendez indictment comes with Democrats playing 2024 defense

Race rating lowered from Solid Democratic as some call for senator’s resignation

New Jersey Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez, and his wife, Nadine, were indicted Friday on bribery charges.
New Jersey Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez, and his wife, Nadine, were indicted Friday on bribery charges. (Stefani Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images file photo)

The indictment Friday of Sen. Bob Menendez comes more than a year before the New Jersey Democrat is expected to be on the ballot seeking a fourth full term and as his party is playing defense in numerous states, trying to hold on to a narrow Senate majority.

Indicted Friday along with his wife, Nadine, on federal bribery charges, Menendez said in a statement that he was “confident that this matter will be successfully resolved once all of the facts are presented.” He said he would not be distracted by “baseless allegations.” 

Menendez did step aside, however, as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee “until the matter has been resolved,” Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., said in statement Friday afternoon. Schumer also called Menendez a “dedicated public servant” and said he “has a right to due process and a fair trial.”

Several Republicans quickly called on Menendez to resign, and were joined Thursday afternoon by Rep. Andy Kim, D-N.J.

“I don’t have confidence that the Senator has the ability to focus on our state and its people while addressing such a significant legal matter,” Kim said in a statement.

Before his last reelection in 2018, Menendez also faced a trial on bribery charges. That case ended in a hung jury in 2017, and the judge and Justice Department ultimately dismissed the charges. He echoed some of his complaints from that time in his statement Friday.

“The excesses of these prosecutors is apparent. They have misrepresented the normal work of a Congressional office. On top of that, not content with making false claims against me, they have attacked my wife for the longstanding friendships she had before she and I even met,” he said. “Those behind this campaign simply cannot accept that a first-generation Latino American from humble beginnings could rise to be a U.S. Senator and serve with honor and distinction. Even worse, they see me as an obstacle in the way of their broader political goals.”

While Democrats in Washington haven’t expected the Garden State to be on the 2024 Senate map, a candidate running under indictment could be a vulnerability. The party is already playing defense in three states that former President Donald Trump won in 2020 — Ohio, Montana and West Virginia — and is also defending incumbents in such swing states as Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Nevada. 

Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales changed its rating of the New Jersey race Friday from Solid Democratic to Likely Democratic.

“The new Menendez indictment injects significant uncertainty into the 2024 New Jersey Senate race, which was not previously expected to be competitive,” Jacob Rubashkin wrote on the site, noting that President Joe Biden carried the state by 16 points in 2020. “Despite increasing levels of partisanship and a decline in split-ticket voting, corruption scandals can still make otherwise-comfortable incumbents vulnerable.”

Democratic Party officials were quiet after the indictment was unsealed Friday in the Southern District of New York, but Republicans were quick to pounce. 

The National Republican Senatorial Committee on Friday suggested it was time for Democrats to turn on Menendez. The party so far hasn’t publicly made New Jersey part of its strategy to win back control of the Senate next year. 

“Bob Menendez is a disgrace who abused his Senate seat and allegedly betrayed his country for a couple hundred thousand dollars,” NRSC spokesman Philip Letsou said in a statement. “Democrats covered for Menendez the first time he got indicted for corruption, it would be a shame if they did so again.”

Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a GOP presidential candidate who once served as the state’s top federal prosecutor, said on Fox News that Menendez was in “very, very big trouble” because of the discovery by federal investigators of large amounts of cash and gold bars in the Menendez home.

“I did 130 of these corruption cases when I was U.S attorney,” Christie said. “I never once heard anybody have a good explanation, especially someone in public office, for having that kind of cash in their home and not deposited in a bank somewhere.”

Still, a Republican has not won a New Jersey Senate race since 1972,  and a national Democratic Senate campaign aide said that “2024 will be no different.” 

Menendez had stepped down as the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee after he was indicted on corruption charges in 2015, but he returned to the role in 2017. He has remained the panel’s chairman while he’s been under investigation over the past several months. 

He was “severely admonished” by the Senate Ethics Committee in 2018 for improperly accepting gifts from Salomon Melgen, a South Florida ophthalmologist who was separately convicted of Medicare fraud but had his sentence commuted by Trump. 

Menendez went on to win reelection in 2018 by 11 points. 

Calls for resignation

Mendham Mayor Christine Serrano Glassner, who is running for the GOP nomination to challenge Menendez, said the indictment was “not surprising.”

“‘Gold Bar Bob’ has been battling credible allegations of corruption throughout most of his time in office, all while being protected and enabled by his cronies and allies in Washington,” she said in a statement. “While Bob Menendez has been enriching himself and his family, his policies have been impoverishing the New Jerseyans he was elected to represent.”

The New Jersey Republican State Committee called on Menendez to resign Friday. 

“While we acknowledge the Senator’s presumption of innocence and right to a fair trial, it is clear that his decade-long legal woes have become an embarrassing distraction. For the good of the people of this state, who deserve full and devoted representation, we call on Senator Robert Menendez to resign,” said Alexandra Wilkes, a spokeswoman for the state GOP. 

Noah Bookbinder, president of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, also called for Menendez’s resignation. He said it was inappropriate for him to stay in office, although he “deserves a fair trial and a presumption of innocence on these latest charges.”

“The stain of corruption continuously taints Menendez. CREW has for years raised concerns about Menendez potentially selling his position, and the Senate Ethics Committee previously found serious misconduct by him,” Bookbinder said in a statement. “The conduct outlined in today’s indictment and the evidence presented are even more damning. The people of New Jersey should not have to be constantly questioning whether one of their senators is taking action for them or to line his pockets.”

If Menendez resigned or otherwise left office before the end of his term, Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy would be able to appoint a successor. 

Senate map taking shape

It would be unexpected if Democrats needed to dedicate resources to Menendez’s reelection campaign. Both parties have focused on the initial six states with Democratic incumbents. 

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is also trying to expand the map to include Florida and Texas, and it launched digital ads against GOP Sens. Rick Scott and Ted Cruz on Friday tying them to a potential partial government shutdown. 

Republicans got a boost Thursday when Dave McCormick launched a campaign in Pennsylvania, aiming to challenge three-term Sen. Bob Casey. But the party still doesn’t have a top-tier recruit in the race in Wisconsin, where Sen. Tammy Baldwin is running for reelection. 

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