What about Bob? Some N.J. Democrats want Menendez to move on so they can fight for his Senate seat

Party leaders, from Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy to local officials, have called on Menendez to resign, and his home county party has dropped its endorsement.

File photo: Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., listens during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, Thursday, Dec. 7, 2023, on Capitol Hill in Washington.

As Democratic Party leaders have called on Bob Menendez to resign amid a federal corruption case against him, a field of robust primary challengers has already emerged has begun to win significant support from county party officials. (AP Photo/Mariam Zuhaib, File)

For years in New Jersey, any Democrat weighing a run for statewide office had to grapple with an important question: What about Bob?

It wasn’t a reference to the 1991 Bill Murray flick but to Bob Menendez, the incumbent U.S. senator whose political influence placed him atop the state Democratic Party food chain. He kept allies in line, helped anoint rising stars and had an important voice in determining the fate of both candidates and policy proposals. Even after a federal corruption indictment ended in a hung jury in 2017, Menendez continued to wield considerable power.

The “What about Bob?” question is no less relevant now, though it has taken on new meaning. It still bears no connection to the movie, though it has cinematic qualities of its own. Menendez is facing federal charges that he secretly aided Egypt’s authoritarian government and tried to thwart a friend’s criminal prosecution in exchange for gold bars and cash. He and his wife, who was also charged, and other co-defendants in the alleged scheme have all pleaded not guilty.

So if New Jersey Democrats ask the question these days, they’re more likely to be wondering when he’ll get out of the way and let them get on with the business of trying to keep a crucial U.S. Senate seat in Democratic hands.

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Menendez, for his part, hasn’t said whether he’ll seek another term but vows that he’s “not going anywhere.” Jason Tuber, Menendez’s chief of staff, said in an email that the “people of New Jersey will determine who their Senator will be.” He didn’t specify Menendez’s plans.

“Senator Menendez has been powerful, effective, and indispensable in delivering for New Jersey and the Senator is prepared to put his record up against anyone who enters the race,” he said.

Still, many in the party he once held considerable sway over already are looking beyond him.

“Anybody looking at that indictment has no choice but to move on,” said former state Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg. “It was horrendous.”

Party leaders, from Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy to local officials, have called on Menendez to resign, his home county party has dropped its endorsement, and with the Democrats’ U.S. Senate majority hanging in the balance, a field of robust primary challengers has begun to emerge.

U.S. Rep. Andy Kim entered the race a day after the indictment, and the state’s first lady, Tammy Murphy, has jumped into the campaign and begun to win significant support from county party officials. Establishment support is typically a key factor to winning primaries in New Jersey because county parties can award the “line” or favored positioning on the ballot. Other prominent Democrats could join the race, too.

“They’re already assuming he’s toast,” said Daniel Cassino, executive director of the Fairleigh Dickinson University poll. “He doesn’t have the pull he had before.”

That’s due to a couple of factors, according to Cassino and other experts. Menendez’s previous indictment unfolded with a Republican governor in office, who would have been likely to tap a GOP senator if the seat opened up. That case also erupted years before Menendez faced reelection, so Democrats had some incentive to see how things would wind up before deciding how they should proceed politically.

Now, rather than back him again amid a second federal corruption case, the party seems poised to move on.

A reliably blue-leaning state with nearly 1 million more Democratic registered voters than Republicans, New Jersey hasn’t elected a GOP senator since 1972. The possibility of a rematch between former President Donald Trump and President Joe Biden has Democrats optimistic about their chances of keeping the seat, even if Menendez mounts a reelection effort.

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The Republican field at the moment includes Mendham Mayor Christine Serrano Glassner. A handful of others are also considering running. The GOP has struggled to win statewide elections, and typically performs better in gubernatorial races, which happen in odd-numbered years, than in Senate races. GOP state party chairman Bob Hugin spent millions of his own cash to try to unseat Menendez in 2018 and came up short.

Menendez has taken a defiant stance in the face of charges brought earlier this year by the U.S. attorney in Manhattan. Mounting a reelection effort while battling the case against him could be too much of a challenge, according to Brigid Harrison, political science professor at Montclair State University.

“It’s going to be hard for Bob Menendez to raise money with the scandal overhead. That is a serious impediment,” she said.

Ben Dworkin, who heads the Rowan Institute for Public Policy & Citizenship, acknowledged that some Democrats are looking to nudge Menendez off the political stage and that public polls have shown support declining for him. Still, he added, Menendez has survived politically before.

“You can’t ever count Menendez out,” he said.

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