Sen. Bob Menendez is a free man, but not yet home free.
New Jersey’s most powerful Democratic leaders quickly rallied around Menendez within hours of the mistrial in his federal corruption case Thursday, signaling he probably will be his party’s nominee for the Senate again next year.
Yet the years-long ordeal of an investigation and trial took a severe toll on his public standing. He faces a review by the Senate ethics committee and a potential retrial, perhaps in the midst of a reelection campaign. And Democrats are left with a wounded incumbent who is nonetheless determined to seek vindication in the form of another six-year term.
“He’s got himself a court of public opinion problem, not a legal problem,” said Bill Caruso, a Democratic strategist and former chief of staff to U.S. Rep. Rob Andrews.
An October Quinnipiac University poll showed that 59 percent of likely voters don’t think Menendez deserves reelection — against 19 percent who do.
Menendez will have to turn those figures around.
It was only 15 years ago when Democratic leaders turned on then-Sen. Robert Torricelli, forcing him to drop his reelection bid with just a month left in the race when it became clear he couldn’t recover from his own ethics scandal, and might lose.
Yet despite Menendez conceding that he failed to disclose the luxurious gifts and free flights he accepted from a friend and donor, New Jersey’s most powerful Democrats vocally backed him, limiting virtually any chance of a serious primary challenge next year.
Democrats rallied to support Menendez
Gov.-elect Phil Murphy — who had campaigned as an independent voice free from insider influence — announced his support for Menendez almost immediately, making it one of his first major statements since winning election this month. So did Senate President Steve Sweeney (D., Gloucester). George E. Norcross III, the leader of South Jersey’s Democratic machine, cemented it, pledging his backing for the senator’s reelection and calling Menendez “a great champion for New Jersey.”
Norcross’ brother, U.S. Rep. Donald Norcross, (D., N.J.) was seen as a potential successor had Menendez been convicted.
And in Washington, Democrats’ Senate campaign arm said it would support Menendez, as it always does for its incumbents.
Even Torricelli, who openly coveted Menendez’s seat, said he won’t run. “It was important to be prepared in case there was a conviction,” he said in an interview.
“I don’t think there’s a Democrat powerful enough in this state to take on the incredibly powerful and unified supporters of Senator Menendez,” said Brigid Harrison, a political science professor at Montclair State University.
Menendez has forecast how he hopes to regain favor: For months he has aggressively highlighted his work for key constituencies, including Latinos, Jewish groups and New Jerseyans hit by Superstorm Sandy.
“All we have to do is rely on his history as a United States senator fighting for New Jersey,” said Menendez political adviser Mike Soliman, who stopped just short of announcing a reelection campaign but predicted an announcement “within weeks.”
The rapid swell of party support didn’t sit well with everyone.
Jay Lassiter, a liberal activist from Cherry Hill, called it “disgusting and unfortunately all too predictable.”
After all, Menendez admitted to going to bat for his friend and major donor, South Florida eye doctor Salomon Melgen, who in a separate criminal case was convicted of bilking Medicare out of $105 million.
Even though Menendez wasn’t convicted of a crime “it certainly stinks and I think voters may have an issue with it,” said Chris Russell, a New Jersey Republican consultant who has advised U.S. Rep. Tom MacArthur.
The GOP will almost certainly try to exploit the trial in next year’s campaign.
However, Menendez has a deep reservoir of political support.
Along with the backing of New Jersey insiders, he is beloved in the Latino community, drawing support far from his home state, Harrison said.
He is also in good standing with Democrats in the Senate, where he is seen as an effective legislator and reliable ally. And sitting lawmakers are loathe to turn against fellow incumbents, unless they have to. Some Democrats privately note that, if Menendez can’t recover politically, party bosses would have time to urge him to move aside for the sake of holding the seat.
Will he be tried again?
A key question may be whether the Justice Department decides to retry the case — and how quickly. Though Menendez has time to repair his image before the campaign begins in earnest, another trial could put the allegations back into the headlines.
But jurors cast significant doubts about the case. One told reporters that the jury favored acquittal on most charges by a 10-2 count.
Prosecutors’ inability to convict Menendez on even a false statements charge “suggests that they were probably even less convinced of the actual corruption charges,” said Andrew Levchuk, a former trial attorney in the Department of Justice’s public corruption unit. That count, for failing to disclose gifts from Melgen as required by Senate ethics rules, was the most straightforward of allegations.
Levchuk, now at the firm Bulkley Richardson, said prosecutors’ task is complicated by the Supreme Court’s 2016 McDonnell decision, which raised the bar for bribery cases after the charges against Menendez had first been filed.
Some former prosecutors still think the government will try again.
The Department of Justice has had a chance to see which witnesses were effective and what arguments did, or did not, resonate with jurors, said Rebecca Monck Ricigliano, a former federal prosecutor who tried corruption cases in Manhattan.
“I would be very surprised if they didn’t,” retry the case, said Ricigliano, now a criminal defense attorney with Crowell & Moring LLP.
Friendly political climate
Given the Democratic backlash against President Trump, New Jersey voters might well opt for an ethically scarred senator over a GOP replacement who might back Trump. Menendez already won election to the Senate once, in 2006, while running under the cloud of a federal investigation. (He was never charged).
“I would find it really hard to believe that a Republican U.S. Senate candidate would win the state of New Jersey in 2018 with President Trump in the White House,” Harrison said.
Jack Ciattarelli, a state assemblyman who unsuccessfully ran for the GOP nomination in this year’s gubernatorial race, is seen as one potential Republican challenger.
While Menendez may not be found guilty of a crime, Ciattarelli said, “it’s the worst kind of violation of public trust in terms of the type of indulgences in which he engaged.”
New Jersey last elected a Republican senator in 1972.
Breaking that streak will require separating the race from Trump, Russell said, and instead making it “about who you want representing you.”