Federal prosecutors indicted New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez and his wife on corruption charges Friday, but don't count on the senator to abandon his reelection plans any time soon.
"For years, forces behind the scenes have repeatedly attempted to silence my voice and dig my political grave," declared the Democrat, who is accused of taking bribes from people supporting Egypt's dictatorial government. And while he did not directly mention his electoral future, Menendez tellingly added, "To my supporters, friends and the community at large, I ask that you recall the other times the prosecutors got it wrong and that you reserve judgement."
Menendez displayed similar defiance after he was charged in 2015 on an entirely different set of corruption allegations. (The Senate Historical Office tells the Associated Press that he appears to be the first sitting senator to face criminal charges for two unrelated matters.)
The state's powerful Democratic establishment quickly consolidated behind Menendez, and it remained loyal to him after federal authorities dropped the charges in 2017 after a jury failed to reach a verdict. Menendez went on to win a third term the following year by a 54-43 margin against wealthy Republican Bob Hugin, benefiting from the fact that reliably blue New Jersey last elected a GOP senator in 1972.
At least until Friday, it appeared the same thing would happen again. Politico's Matt Friedman reported in August that, not only were prominent Democrats standing behind Menendez amid reports of new investigations, the one person the outlet contacted "who was willing to say anything that Menendez could possibly construe as disloyal" was former Sen. Bob Torricelli. (Torricelli, whose own career ended in scandal two decades ago, still made it clear he wouldn't run against the incumbent.) The senator's only notable intra-party challenger at the moment is Kyle Jasey, the head of a real estate lending company and the son of retiring Assemblywoman Mila Jasey. So far, he's attracted little attention.
However, it remains to be seen whether Democratic power players will display the same sort of loyalty to Menendez now that they've seen some of the salacious details in his latest indictment, including pictures of gold bars that prosecutors say the senator accepted as bribes. Friedman noted one significant difference from 2015, when Menendez already had supportive statements ready from notable Democrats ready to go right after he was charged. "Today, they've all so far been publicly silent," Friedman points out. Well, not quite all: "I strongly believe in his integrity and values," said Rep. Rob Menendez, who happens to be the defendant's son.
The senator is hoping that Gov. Phil Murphy and powerful county party leaders will stick by him and help ensure he faces minimal opposition in next year's primary. Yet even if top Democrats once again rally around Menendez, that's no guarantee of smooth sailing. In his 2018 primary, which took place after the last set of charges against him had been dismissed, Menendez turned back a little-known foe named Lisa McCormick by a soft 62-38 margin. That showing could inspire a stronger foe to challenge the incumbent no matter what the party establishment does, though a large field could end up helping him by splitting the vote.
But even if Menendez secures renomination, it's possible that Jersey Democrats may not be stuck with him should his political or legal situation deteriorate during the general election. The aforementioned Torricelli, under pressure from party leaders, ended his reelection bid in late September of 2002 in the face of ugly polling numbers after the Senate Ethics Committee admonished him for accepting lavish gifts from a businessman. Democratic leaders replaced him with former Sen. Frank Lautenberg who, as Steve Kornacki would write in 2013, had come to regret his decision to retire from the state's other Senate seat the previous cycle.
Torricelli, who years earlier had called Lautenberg "a fucking piece of shit" and told him "I’m going to cut your balls off!" might have stuck it out if he knew who would be replacing him on the ballot, but by that point it was too late. (Torricelli was never charged with criminal wrongdoing.) Republicans tried to block the swap from happening, but the state Supreme Court rejected a legal challenge. Lautenberg went on to easily hold Torricelli's seat and remained in the Senate until his death in 2013.
That event led to New Jersey's most recent Senate vacancy, which Gov. Chris Christie filled by appointing a fellow Republican, Attorney General Jeff Chiesa, a fellow Republican. Chiesa declined to seek a full term, however, and Newark Mayor Cory Booker won the special election to succeed him later that same year.
Christie controversially scheduled that race to take place on a Wednesday in October, a day of the week that American elections almost never take place, even though New Jersey was set to hold regularly scheduled statewide elections three weeks later. Christie, who was seeking reelection in November (on a Tuesday, of course) and likely wanted to avoid sharing a ballot with the high-profile Booker, vetoed a bill to combine the two contests, unconvincingly arguing it would lead to "unnecessary voter confusion."
Should Menendez wind up leaving early, it would be up to Murphy to appoint a successor. The timing of Menendez's departure would help decide if and when there's a special election for the remainder of his term. If there is, though, don't expect Murphy to set it for a Wednesday.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this story misspelled Sen. Menendez’s last name in the headline and has been corrected.