Some New Jersey Republicans, staring down an electoral cliff, think they’ve spotted a branch to hold on to in Sen. Robert Menendez’s ethical troubles.
The Senate Ethics Committee’s “severe” admonishment of Menendez last week over gifts received from and favors done for a friend gave some much-needed ammunition to New Jersey Republicans who are running in a state where President Donald Trump’s deep unpopularity is threatening to make it the crest of an incoming Democratic wave.
"Both Democrats and Republicans that make up the Bipartisan Senate Ethics Committee have found that Senator Bob Menendez violated Federal law and ethics rules. He is an embarrassment to our state and it is time for him to resign," Bob Hugin, Menendez’s likely challenger in November, said in a statement last week.
It’s not just Hugin, a wealthy former pharmaceutical executive, who’s seized on the Ethics Committee’s findings. In the 2nd Congressional District, where 24-year Republican Rep. Frank LoBiondo is retiring, Republican primary candidate Hirsh Singh called on likely Democratic nominee Jeff Van Drew to “join me in standing up for the people of South Jersey and demand Menendez’s resignation.” In North Jersey’s 11th District, where 24-year incumbent Republican Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen is retiring, the Republican primary candidate Jay Webber called out the Democratic favorite, Mikie Sherrill, for not commenting on the committee’s findings.
“She’s running on the lines in all four counties in the district. That’s her running mate. It’s totally fair to demand that she repudiate his unethical actions and separate herself from him. And if she doesn’t, people should know about that, too,” Webber said in a phone interview.
The ethics letter is a lifeline for New Jersey Republicans. Trump‘s deep unpopularity in New Jersey — he had 34 percent approval in a Monmouth University poll in April — has spurred well-funded Democratic candidacies in all five Republican-held congressional districts, including some that previously had been considered safe. A Monmouth University poll released last month, before the ethics reprimand, found there’s a chance all five Republican-held congressional districts in the state could flip.
Menendez, who’s up for reelection this year, has faced questions about his relationship with Florida eye doctor and convicted Medicare fraudster Salomon Melgen since late in his previous reelection campaign six years ago. Those questions culminated in a 2½-month corruption trial last fall that ended in a hung jury, with 10 of 12 jurors favoring acquittal. The Justice Department ultimately decided not to retry the case after a judge threw out many of the charges for the second go-around.
“These charges were rejected by a jury, a judge threw out the heart of the charges, and finally, the case was dropped by a Republican administration’s Department of Justice. That is the clearest, strongest statement that could be made about these charges,” Menendez adviser Michael Soliman said in a statement.
The committee had already announced its investigation, and virtually no one expected it to completely clear Menendez for taking private flights, hotel stays and political contributions from the wealthy Melgen while advocating for his business interests at the highest levels of federal government.
“The Committee has determined that this conduct violated Senate Rules, federal law, and applicable standards of conduct,” the committee wrote to Menendez. “Accordingly, the Committee issues you this Public Letter of Admonition, and also directs you to repay the fair market value of all impermissible gifts not already repaid.”
But the committee’s finding that Menendez violated federal law gave Republicans a way to make the claim that Menendez broke the law without the caveat that a jury on the matter was hung. While the letter doesn’t say which law Menendez violated, it likely refers to his non-disclosure of gifts received from Melgen on Senate forms and not the bribery counts that made up the bulk of his trial.
"Republicans and Democrats cannot agree on which way is up and which way is down, but yesterday they were able to come together and agree that Bob Menendez is corrupt and issue him an official admonishment," Doug Steinhardt, New Jersey’s state GOP chairman, said in a statement.
For now, Democrats don’t appear to be sweating it. None have called on Menendez to resign, though there was an awkward moment when a reporter for The Record of Bergen County asked five Democratic House members if they had any concerns about being on the ballot next to Menendez. The members appeared uncomfortable with the question, with several making moves to walk away without answering it before, instead, deciding to praise the senator.
“This election is going to be about the deeply unpopular Republican agenda, which hurts New Jersey more than any state in the country,” Evan Lukaske, spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said in a statement. “Make no mistake — when Garden State families are sitting at the kitchen table trying to figure out how to pay their increased health care premiums or higher taxes, they’ll know Republicans are to blame. And they’ll deliver a message at the ballot box.”
For all the GOP outrage, one key group of Republicans has been notably quiet about the Ethics Committee letter: the five Republican congressional incumbents, including the three who are seeking reelection.
Only Rep. Leonard Lance, whose district is considered a “toss-up” by political prognosticators, has commented on the Ethics Committee letter. And he disagreed with his party’s leadership on whether Menendez should resign. He said that while he’s a big supporter of Hugin, Menendez should stay and face reelection.
“I’m not critical of those who are calling for him to resign. I certainly understand that,” he said in a phone interview. “My view, however, is that he’s the overwhelming consensus choice of the Democratic Party based upon the statements of the governor, the other U.S. senator and all of the other Democratic members of the House.”
A similar situation 16 years ago ended badly for the Democratic incumbent senator, Robert Torricelli, when he was admonished for accepting gifts from a campaign donor. Torricelli was ultimately forced to drop out late in the race and was replaced by former Sen. Frank Lautenberg, who easily won.
But Torricelli was running in the first midterms after George W. Bush's election, and Bush was still popular in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks. And Torricelli's opponent, Doug Forrester, didn’t have Hugin’s background as a pharmaceutical executive whose company, Celgene, has faced its own controversies about hiking the price of a cancer drug and parking money overseas.
“Those who want to use this for partisan gain will fail, as voters care about the issues that affect their everyday lives,” Soliman said.
Ross Baker, a Rutgers University political science professor who studies the Senate, called the ethics letter a “flesh wound” that, while not helpful to Menendez, is unlikely to do much damage to his reelection effort.
“Menendez can handle it. He’s a very adroit politician. But it’s a distraction that nobody running for reelection wants to have,” Baker said.
As for Republicans tying other Democrats to the senator, Baker was even more skeptical.
“They’re making an effort to kind of tie all these Democratic challengers to Menendez, but I doubt that would be very effective,” he said. “The Democratic base is very motivated. The Republicans are in those places fairly demoralized. I don’t think it will be a problem.”