Senate Democrats abandoned Bob Menendez, but nobody’s backing a primary challenger — yet


“I think he should resign,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), the second senator to call for Menendez to step down. “I’m not dogging him or doing anything else. I hope he doesn’t run, but if he does run, it’s his choice. And I think he will lose.”

Interviews with more than a dozen Senate Democrats, many of whom have called on Menendez to step down, revealed few willing to commit support for a primary challenger — or to condemn Menendez for weighing a 2024 bid. Some Democrats didn’t comment at all.

The relative silence on Menendez suggests that Democrats, despite the fallout caused by the New Jersey senator’s indictment, don’t see the merit in duking it out with their longtime colleague. While the cascade of resignation calls against former Sen. Al Franken over sexual misconduct allegations prompted him to announce his resignation in 2017, Menendez has made it clear it’ll take more of a fight to push him out. With the House gripped by Republican chaos, Democratic senators want to keep drama in their own chamber to a minimum.

Menendez himself is giving no hint of what he’ll do, telling POLITICO when asked about his timeline for a decision on 2024 that “I don’t have to answer to you people … I will tell the people of New Jersey when I’m ready.”

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which has a policy of protecting incumbent senators, has not formally cut off Menendez. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has declined to call on Menendez to resign but criticized him for falling below the “standard” of the chamber.

One Democratic senator, granted anonymity to speak freely on the matter, predicted that both the campaign arm and Schumer would “cut him loose” if Menendez chose to run for reelection.

“There is something like a 0 percent chance he would be able to get the nomination,” this senator said. “He’s a dead man walking, politically.”

But until that happens, Menendez’s colleagues are showing a striking degree of deference toward him in an election cycle that has the party playing defense across the country.

“He’s got to decide that — and the people of New Jersey. It’s really not for us,” Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), No. 3 in the caucus, said of Menendez’s flirtation with another bid.

Many Democrats would prefer that the voters, legal system or Ethics Committee — or some combination thereof — deliver accountability for Menendez first. That’s in part because of how painful his downfall is for colleagues, many of whom still call him a friend. The New Jerseyan is a former DSCC chair himself and helped write a bipartisan immigration bill with Schumer.

Not to mention that Menendez is a two-decade-long kingpin in New Jersey politics. He mentored fellow Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), and his son serves in the House. His campaign account had close to $8 million cash on hand at the end of his most recent filing. On the other hand, he’s also battled with his own party over foreign policy in Cuba, Iran and elsewhere for years.

Sen. Peter Welch (D-Vt.), the third caucus member to call for Menendez to step down, said he still isn’t weighing support for primary challengers — “yet.”

“Half the Democratic caucus is encouraging him to resign. And that’s the hope. If you resign, you’re not going to be serving another term,” Welch said. “It’s his call.”

With the Democratic Party itching to differentiate itself from former President Donald Trump and his dozens of federal charges, nominating an indicted senator would open it up to substantial criticism. Asked if Menendez running could affect Democrats writ large, Fetterman said, “It could.”

“If he would be foolish enough to run for reelection, I will be actively assisting anyone that’s running against him in the primary,” Fetterman said. He’s already sent one fundraising appeal for Kim, who is vying for Menendez’s seat.

DSCC Chair Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) has called on Menendez to resign but offered no further details about how he would handle a Menendez run next year. In theory, the campaign arm would default to supporting the incumbent — but this is not a normal situation.

Peters said he has not spoken to Menendez yet about 2024 and that “we’ve got time to see what happens there.”

He reiterated his desire to see Menendez resign and that “as to the future, you can extrapolate what you’d like.”

The GOP is salivating at the prospects of an indicted Democrat leading a statewide ballot. In any other cycle, a Republican winning New Jersey would be unthinkable; the party has not won a Senate race in the state since 1972.

But when controversial candidates nab nominations, strange things can happen. (See: Doug Jones, the Democrat who won an Alabama Senate seat in 2017.)

“We’re going to see how this all unfolds, but New Jersey could become a competitive race,” said National Republican Senatorial Chair Steve Daines (R-Mont.).

Rep. Jeff Van Drew (R-N.J.), a former Democrat who switched parties in 2019, is openly weighing a Senate bid. His campaign launched a fundraising ad on Facebook that pitched him as a possible alternative to Menendez.

“I haven’t made up my mind on whether I will run or not. But what I can tell you is that Menendez will not resign,” reads the advertisement.

Menendez appears to have access to Democratic campaign tools. ActBlue, the go-to fundraising platform for Democrats, still hosts multiple fundraising pages for Menendez.

ActBlue’s account use policy says that “if candidates or organizations have been said to recently or repeatedly engage in criminal activity” decisions on removal will be made “case-by-case.” The site declined to comment on whether Menendez’s access will be revoked.

It’s unclear whether Menendez still has access to NGP VAN, another voter database widely used by Democratic campaigns. A VAN spokesperson told POLITICO that it does “not comment on clients.”

Recent Democratic polls show Menendez’s unfavorable ratings are high, indicating that he will start out as a massive underdog. Still, plenty could still change between now and the peak of the New Jersey race.

Menendez’s trial is slated for May, and the Senate Ethics Committee could recommend repercussions against Menendez before then. He could also strike a plea deal with the Justice Department that might require him to forgo reelection.

While Senate Democrats bank on any of those factors putting an end to Menendez’s political career, they’re also focused on an even more awkward task: Getting through the rest of his current term with him as a colleague.

“I’m not really worried that he will [run],” said the Democratic senator who was granted anonymity. “I’m more worried about how we deal with him here.”



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