Sen. Bob Menendez said Monday he expects to beat a federal indictment accusing him of bribery and that those calling on him to resign, including fellow New Jersey Democrats, were rushing to judgment “because they see a political opportunity for themselves or those around them.”
He didn’t explicitly address whether he will seek reelection next year after Rep. Andy Kim, D-N.J., launched a campaign to challenge him over the weekend.
“I recognize that this will be the biggest fight yet, but as I have stated throughout this whole process, I firmly believe that when all the facts are presented, not only will I be exonerated but I still will be New Jersey’s senior senator,” Menendez told supporters at a community college in New Jersey. “Remember, prosecutors get it wrong sometimes. Sadly, I know that.”
That was a reference to a 2015 indictment accusing him of unrelated bribery charges that led to a mistrial in 2017 followed by a partial acquittal by the trial judge and dismissal of the remaining charges before Menendez was reelected in 2018.
Prosecutors in New York on Friday announced the indictment of Menendez, his wife, Nadine, and three New Jersey businessmen. The three-count document says the senator and his wife accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars, gold and a Mercedes-Benz in exchange for Menendez using his job in the Senate to enrich the businessmen and benefit the Egyptian government.
Menendez stepped down as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee after the charges were unsealed Friday, but Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., said he “has a right to due process and a fair trial.” Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, one of the Democrats’ most vulnerable incumbents up for reelection next year, called on Menendez to resign Monday, after Sen. John Fetterman, D-Pa., did so on Saturday.
While other Senate Democrats have not weighed in, the situation in his home state, where his party is trying to defend majorities in the legislature in November, is much different. After Kim came out first, Gov. Phil Murphy, most of the state’s congressional delegation and several of the state’s powerful county party chairs called on Menendez to step down.
“His political support within the counties, that matter so much electorally … has evaporated,” said Micah Rasmussen, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey at Rider University.
That support is so crucial because of how New Jersey sets up its ballots. Instead of showing all of the candidates running for one office together, ballots include all of the candidates backed by a county party together. That’s known as the “line,” and candidates running on the party line have historically had a significant edge, especially in Democratic primaries.
Patrick Murray, the Monmouth University Polling Institute director, said that if all of the county parties back one candidate ahead of June 2024, it would be difficult for Menendez to win the Democratic nomination next year. But if they split on who they support, he could have a path.
“If it’s not a multicandidate field then it’s highly unlikely that he could win against a single designated opponent,” Murray said. No other prominent Democrats have followed Kim’s lead and jumped into the race, but that could change after the legislative elections are over.
Menendez’s approval rating had already dipped this year after published reports that he was once again under criminal investigation. A Monmouth poll conducted last month found that Menendez had a 36 percent approval rating and a 45 percent disapproval rating among registered voters in New Jersey. His support among Democrats dropped 8 points to 58 percent.
The poll found that voters were aware that Menendez, at the time, was under federal investigation and that a majority thought the investigation had an impact on his ability to do his job.
“There were some doubts and I think part of that had to do with, we’ve been through this before, and we gave you the benefit of the doubt before. Shouldn’t you go over and beyond what you need to do to keep your nose clean?” Murray said. “There was a sense that if the Feds were investigating him again, there might be a little bit more to this than there was the last time.”
If Menendez did leave office before his term ends in January 2025, Murphy, the state’s governor, would be able to pick a Democrat to fill the seat. Republican Chris Christie was governor when Menendez was previously indicted.
The latest bribery charges are also less murky than the charges he faced eight years ago, which centered around luxury travel and contributions to help his campaign and county party organizations funded by a South Florida ophthalmologist who was a personal friend of Menendez’s, said Rasmussen.
“These charges leave nothing to the imagination,” he said. “I think the real profound difference is that voters are not going to identify with these charges at all. There’s no mistaking these charges or what’s involved here and it’s completely different than the last time.”
A defense takes shape
In his remarks Monday, his first in public since being indicted, Menendez was flanked by people he said were “everyday people and constituents who know me.” He offered a suggestion of what part of his defense may look like.
The indictment included a photo of cash fanned out on a jacket bearing the senator’s name, and said a search of his home found more than $480,000. Menendez said he has long withdrawn thousands of dollars in cash from his personal savings account in case of emergencies because of his family’s history “facing confiscation in Cuba.”
“This may seem old fashioned, but these were monies drawn from my personal savings account based on the income that I have lawfully derived over those 30 years,” he said.
He did not address gold bars also found in the raid, saying only he looked forward to addressing other issues at trial.
Menendez also defended his record on Egypt, which he is accused of helping after being introduced to agents through his wife and co-defendants.
“Throughout my time in Congress I have remained steadfast on the side of civil society and human rights defenders in Egypt and everywhere else in the world,” he said “If you look at my actions related to Egypt during the period described in this indictment, and throughout my whole career, my record is clear and consistent in holding Egypt accountable for its unjust detention of American citizens and others, its human rights abuses, its deepening relationship with Russia and efforts that have eroded the independence of the nation’s judiciary among a myriad of concerns.”
New Jersey’s congressional primaries are scheduled for next June, but the state will hold legislative elections in November.
After those elections, more Democrats could start making their own moves ahead of 2024. It’s not clear if other Democrats in the state’s House delegation along with Kim may look to jump to the Senate.
Some outside groups have already backed Kim’s campaign. End Citizens United // Let America Vote endorsed him on Monday, while VoteVets sent out a fundraising email seeking to split donations with his campaign.
GOP Rep. Jeff Van Drew, who was elected in 2018 as a Democrat but switched parties the following year, said he would consider a Senate run next year, telling Save Jersey that “this is a unique opportunity for New Jersey Republicans to elect a Conservative leader to the Senate who truly believes in the values of the working people of this great state.”
Mendham Mayor Christine Serrano Glassner launched a Republican campaign for Senate earlier this month.
With Kim jumping into the Senate race, there are already potential candidates to replace him in the 3rd District. Carol Murphy, the majority whip in the state Assembly, said in a statement that she would consider running but her decision would likely come after the legislative elections.
“As I make my official decision consulting with family, friends and my team, I weigh heavily how I can best fight for the priorities and values that makes New Jersey a wonderful place to live,” she said, noting that the state only has two women currently in Congress.
Troy Singleton, the majority whip in the state Senate, said he was “humbled to be considered for this tremendous opportunity,” and that he would need to discuss a bid with his family.