Consider Democrat Bob Menendez, running hard for re-election after evading conviction on federal corruption charges via mistrial, New Jersey’s senior senator couldn’t outrun the bipartisan Senate Ethics Committee. The panel “severely admonished” him yesterday for aiding his friend, and recently-convicted felon, Dr. Salomon Melgen, by “placing [his] Senate office in Dr. Melgen’s service at the same time you repeatedly accepted gifts of significant value from him.” But that hasn’t undermined Gov. Phil Murphy’s confidence in the candidate.
“I 100 percent support the senator — I’ve got no opinion directly as it relates to that. I do not know where we’d be without him, frankly. He is an absolute bulldog.” he said.
Noting he hadn’t read the letter, fellow Democrat Cory Booker called Menendez, “An honest public servant who has worked tirelessly on behalf of our state and nation and who has put New Jerseyans first.” Meanwhile, Menendez attorney Marc Elias argued, “many of the findings in the [Senate] letter were not only contradicted by the presiding judge and rejected by the jury, but the proceedings clearly demonstrated that there was no violation of any law. This was further demonstrated when the Department of Justice dropped its baseless charges in January.”
“I think most people in New Jersey have already made up their mind about whether they think Bob Menendez is guilty or innocent,” said Seton Hall political science professor Matt Hale. “You know, I think it’s interesting that the court said he’s innocent and the Senate said he’s not. And I think most people trust the court more than they trust the Senate.”
A recent Monmouth University Poll gave Menendez a scant 37 percent approval rating in New Jersey — almost equal to the 38 percent who disapprove of him. He’s not popular, and the corruption scandal didn’t help.
“They don’t like it. It hurt his job approval numbers,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Poll. “However, he still maintains a very significant lead in the polls mainly because a bigger issue for voters is Donald Trump, rather than whatever trouble that Bob Menendez has got into.”
“He violated the law, broke Senate rules, embarrassed and disgraced the Senate and failed the people of New Jersey,” said Menendez’s likely opponent, Republican Bob Hugin.
Hugin hopes the voting public does care as he seeks to unseat Menendez. But Hugin donated a six-figure sum to Donald Trump.
“I’m independent,” said Hugin. When asked if he voted for Trump, he replied, “I did vote for President Trump. But the point is, now we’re talking about what’s best for the future. And we need people who are independent and would do the right thing for New Jersey.” He continued, “I’d be a senator people could be proud of, not one that’s running to stay one step ahead of the law.”
Hugin is 21 points behind Menendez in the Monmouth poll. But the trial is over and time is on the incumbent’s side.
“I think the fact that this happened in April rather than in September or October is certainly helpful for him because it gives him a long runway that he can deal with this issue,” said Murray.
In the end, New Jersey’s a blue state where Trump’s approval rating is 34 percent. The political forecast for November calls for a blue wave, and that’s an advantage even for an admonished Democrat.