Politics & Policy

The Democrats’ Menendez Problem

Senator Bob Menendez in Washington, D.C., in 2015 (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)
Corruption charges and liberal antipathy to the New Jersey senator may help sink a blue wave in November.

Anger about President Donald Trump could set off a blue wave throughout the country that would enable the Democrats to take back Congress in November. But although the Trump factor might be fueling Democratic enthusiasm and discouraging some Republicans, the problem with such overarching narratives is that sometimes local and personal factors are more important than national issues in deciding individual elections. That’s why a Republican has a fighting chance of stealing a supposedly safe Democratic Senate seat in blue New Jersey this fall.

Going into 2018, the Senate electoral map gave Democrats a lot to worry about, with several incumbents facing reelection in red states carried in 2016 by Donald Trump and relatively few GOP seats up for grabs. Though the Democrats’ prospects have improved, with seats in Arizona and Tennessee suddenly looking competitive after Jeff Flake and Bob Corker, respectively, decided not to run for reelection, their chances of taking back the Senate still depend on virtually running the table in all the tossup races. But no one thought Senator Robert Menendez’s New Jersey seat was anything but a safe bet that Democrats could take for granted while they battled to hold on elsewhere.

But a new Fairleigh Dickinson University poll is shattering assumptions about the inevitability of a Menendez win. According to the survey, Menendez leads Republican Bob Hugin by a scant 28–24 percent margin, with a whopping 46 percent undecided.

This is a marked change from the leads of 21 and 17 percent that Menendez held in other polls taken earlier in the spring. But with June primaries in which both men are expected to win easily approaching, the increased attention given the race hasn’t worked to Menendez’s advantage. Hugin’s massive television-ad buys in the New York and Philadelphia media markets have centered entirely on Menendez’s narrow escape from a federal corruption trial that ended in mistrial earlier this year.

New Jersey has a reputation as a hotbed of political corruption, but Garden State voters aren’t necessarily thrilled with having someone who seems as dirty as Menendez representing them in the Senate.

Though the federal government’s prosecution of Menendez on charges that he was bribed by a longtime friend to help his business deal with the government has ended, the repercussions from the long legal ordeal have not. Menendez took the government’s failure to convict him as a vindication of his behavior, but years of publicity that centered on the expensive favors given him by Dr. Salomon Melgen has undermined his standing with the voters.

New Jersey has a reputation as a hotbed of political corruption, but Garden State voters aren’t necessarily thrilled with having someone who seems as dirty as Menendez representing them in the Senate. When his case ended, polls showed that a majority of New Jersey voters didn’t think Menendez deserved reelection. The Fairleigh Dickinson poll shows that he is still underwater with a 39–33 unfavorable rating. Meanwhile Hugin, a relatively unknown pharmaceutical executive, has a 19–10 favorable rating.

Hugin has his own potential problems, since his Celgene Corporation had to pay a $280 million fine as a result of having promoted two cancer drugs for uses that had not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration as well as allegations that it submitted false claims to Medicare. Menendez, who has a substantial war chest at his disposal, will likely be harping on that theme in order to distract voters from his own shortcomings. But it is far from clear that besmirching his likely GOP opponent will be enough to offset the fact that virtually every New Jersey voter who has been awake since 2015 knows all about Menendez living the lifestyle of the rich and famous on the tab of a wealthy friend who relied upon him to fix any problems with the federal government.

But Menendez’s problems aren’t limited to his tarnished ethical reputation. In a year when the Democratic base is fired up to push for impeachment of Trump, the party’s all-important activist base has another reason to be less than thrilled with the senator.

In a party in which loyalty to former President Barack Obama remains the coin of the realm, Menendez was an outlier. He was among the most ardent and vocal opponents of Obama’s policy toward Iran. He engaged in a bitter fight with the administration over its reluctance to enact and enforce sanctions against Tehran and also opposed the nuclear pact once it was negotiated. Indeed, Obama and Menendez reportedly engaged in a brutal face-to-face exchange over the issue at a Democratic-party retreat in which the former president more or less accused Menendez of being in the pay of the pro-Israel lobby.

Ironically, the Democrats’ loss of the Senate in 2014 wound up actually helping Obama, since it resulted in Menendez’s replacement as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee by the far more pliable Corker (though his indictment would have forced him to stand down eventually anyway).

Though accusations from some Menendez loyalists that his prosecution was fast-tracked to please the White House were unfounded, the bitter taste from that dustup lingers. Menendez may be a lockstep liberal on domestic issues, but his hawkish foreign policy hurts him with liberal activists, who, like Obama, regard defense of the Iran deal as a partisan litmus test. That explains the unusually large number of Democrats — 42 percent — that the Fairleigh Dickinson poll records as being undecided in a contest with a two-term incumbent who won reelection by 18 points in 2012. While Menendez’s clout with party regulars and his fundraising ability were enough to scare off more-serious primary challengers, his cause is not likely to engender the kind of liberal fervor that is lifting Democrats elsewhere.

The fact that Menendez opposed Trump’s withdrawal from an Iran deal that Menendez detested is evidence that the senator understands that the Democrats he needs in November won’t tolerate any further heresy from him on Obama’s signature foreign-policy stand.

Menendez’s vulnerability will present national Democrats with an interesting dilemma, since they will be loath to divert funds from red-state incumbents fighting for their lives in order to defend a seat that Republicans would never have dreamed of winning had the senator not been under an ethical cloud.

Should he fall, Menendez will be an object lesson in the fallacy of believing in national narratives in midterms that are decided by dozens of races that often hinge more on local and personal issues. Should the Democrats win in November, it will be credited to dislike of Trump, and should they fail to win the House and/or the Senate, the president will claim it as a personal victory. But what happens in New Jersey may not have as much to do with Trump’s reputation as it will with that of an ethically challenged hawkish Democrat who can’t rally the liberal base.