New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez spent more than two and a half years embroiled in a criminal case against him before a mistrial last November. Immediately afterwards, he secured the backing of every prominent Democrat in the state, including Senator Cory Booker and Governor Phil Murphy. Months later, he was restored to his perch as the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee by Democratic Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, where Menendez has a prominent position from which to parrot right wing talking points about Iran and Cuba.
But, shockingly, being indicted for corruption apparently did not endear him to New Jersey voters; in September of last year, a poll showed that 50 percent of New Jersey voters opposed his re-election. In his June primary, Menendez managed to get just 62 percent of the vote against a primary opponent who had zero name recognition and who reported raising no money. And now, according to the New York Times, it looks like Menendez and the Democrats are in actual trouble of losing his seat to a Republican.
Menendez has been getting hammered with attack ads by his opponent, pharmaceutical executive Bob Hugin, who as of June had “raised” nearly $10 million more than Menendez (more than $15 million of which came out of his own pocket) and had nearly $2 million more in cash on hand. And now, cracks in Menendez’s firewall are starting to show, as the Times reported on Sunday:
But despite the advantages, Mr. Menendez has shown signs of weakened support. In the primary, Lisa McCormick, a small-business owner and unknown candidate with virtually no money, managed to win nearly 40 percent of the vote. A significant number of voters view Mr. Menendez unfavorably, according to recent polls. Real Clear Politics, a nonpartisan polling aggregate site, downgraded Mr. Menendez’s chances from “likely Democrat” to “leans Democrat.”
“Look, this isn’t a race that should be on our radar at all,” said Jennifer E. Duffy, a senior editor at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. “But why do we pay attention? One, that primary result,” referring to Ms. McCormick’s vote count, adding that “you can’t take that lightly. And then you’ve got a Republican who’s going to put in — the number moves around a lot — but anywhere from $25 to $50 million.”
Although not much polling on the race has been released, a Gravis poll taken in July showed Menendez and Hugin in a virtual tie. What’s almost as troubling for Democrats as the prospect of losing what should be a safe seat is the prospect of what they could end up having to spend to keep it in Democratic hands. The party is already at a deep disadvantage in the Senate this year, defending 25 seats total (the Republicans are only defending eight), with 10 of those seats in states Donald Trump won in 2016. (In contrast, just one Republican, Nevada’s Dean Heller, is defending his seat in a state that Hillary Clinton won.)
There’s also a precedent for Democrats losing a Senate election in a deep blue state after a high-profile corruption scandal. And as Alex Pareene noted in June, it really didn’t have to be this way:
Endorsing Menendez, tacitly or openly, is not just an endorsement of one corrupt politician. It is a voluntary abdication of the right to make anti-corruption arguments as a party. There is no unfortunate but understandable political expediency involved, as there was when Chris Christie would have been in charge of replacing Menendez. Menendez is among the most replaceable politicians in the party. A houseplant running on the Democratic Party line in November would be overwhelmingly likely to win the election, especially if it had never been involved in a well-publicized corruption trial. New York Rangers legend Mark Messier, campaigning on a platform of “remember when I knocked the Devils out of the 1994 Eastern Conference Finals with my legendary Game Six hat trick,” would probably win a U.S. Senate race in New Jersey on the Democratic ticket. There was no need to stick with Menendez; to do so merely sends the message that what he did doesn’t matter to you and isn’t important.
As the Times reported, Menendez “might get help” from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, the campaign arm of the Senate Democratic caucus. The paper also reported the New Jersey State Democratic committee is already raising money for him—which is probably not something they want to be doing, considering at least four House seats are on the party’s radar for 2018.
It was plainly obvious to anyone who didn’t have their hands in the New Jersey Democratic machine what the right move was after the Menendez trial concluded: to cut him loose. And if the incumbent somehow manages to lose this seat, or if money spent on him prevents the Democrats from winning a flippable seat in Nevada or Arizona or Texas or Tennessee—all races that are essential for the party to win to keep its slim hopes of taking back the Senate alive—the Democrats will have no one to blame but themselves.