Bob Menendez's trial is already taking a political toll

Menendez Trial
Sen. Bob Menendez arrives to court in Newark, N.J., Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2017.

WASHINGTON — His bribery trial holds the most immediate peril for Sen. Bob Menendez — but federal prosecutors aren’t the only ones threatening his political future.

If he wins in court, the New Jersey Democrat still has to stand for reelection next year — and at least one poll shows that the daily headlines coming from his trial are already taking a toll.

A Quinnipiac University poll released last week, and conducted just as the trial began, found that 50 percent of New Jersey voters don’t think Menendez deserves reelection, compared with 20 percent who think he should get another six years in office. In June, before the trial opened and started generating daily stories, 31 percent thought Menendez deserved another term — so that’s an 11 point drop. At that time, 44 percent opposed his reelection.

With the indictment hanging over him for more than two years, Menendez had done a remarkable job of maintaining a “business as usual” stance. His approval ratings were not nearly as bad as you might expect for someone facing federal corruption charges: in June Quinnipiac found 44 percent of New Jerseyans approved of Menendez’s job performance, against 35 percent who disapproved.

But it was one thing to do that when the accusations were looming in the background. It’s another now that the charges are playing out daily in court. Menendez’s approval fell to an upside down 31-49 percent in last week’s Q poll.

“We fully expected this,” once the trial began, said Mike Soliman, one of the senator’s top political advisers.

“It’s no surprise whatsoever,” he added. “We’re prepared for it. When he’s exonerated he will have the opportunity not only to get a bounce from being exonerated but running his own reelection campaign next year and pushing his own message out.”

A Drop in Support for Menendez

Half of New Jersey voters don’t think Sen. Bob Menendez deserves reelection next year, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released last week.
Question: Do you feel that Robert Menendez deserves to be reelected?
Staff Graphic

Both sides seem acutely aware of the political stakes. Seemingly trying to maintain his standing with his supporters, Menendez has kept up a busy public schedule — rallying against President Trump’s decision to rescind protections for young undocumented immigrants and cosponsoring a bill on the Equifax data breach, for example. He’s been bringing friendly faces to the trial to try to counter the blows landing from prosecutors. Sen. Cory Booker (D., N.J.) offered support on the trial’s opening day, and other local officials have followed, along with New Jersey activists, Hispanic civic leaders, and constituents Menendez has aided.

The Republican National Committee, meanwhile, has blasted out daily missives attacking Menendez over the allegations and turning up heat on fellow Democrats who have offered support or accepted political donations from the New Jerseyan. One conservative political group, America Rising, launched a website last week highlighting how many votes Menendez has missed while attending his trial in Newark.

Of course, Republicans haven’t won a Senate election in New Jersey since 1972 and would be hard pressed to break that streak next year — but the GOP is hoping that a conviction could force fellow Democrats to vote to expel Menendez from the Senate, allowing Gov. Christie to name a (presumably) Republican replacement. (The trial’s slow pace so far, though, is working against them, Politico’s Matt Friedman notes. Christie’s term ends Jan. 16, so the longer the trial goes, the less time Republicans will have to ramp up the pressure if Menendez is actually convicted).

But the threat to Menendez may not only come from the right. The farther his standing falls, the more tempting a primary target he may make for ambitious New Jersey Democrats. Soliman discounted that possibility, noting the senator’s strong ties to party leaders, and said Menendez will have a chance after the trial to tell New Jerseyans about the work he’s done for the state.

That assumes he’s found not guilty. Even if he is, big challenges will remain.