Democrats eye Menendez’s seat as party support flags

Most Democratic county chairs have urged the senator to resign

By: - September 25, 2023 5:29 pm

Rep. Andy Kim, left, announced last week he would seek the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate in 2024, presenting a potential challenge for sitting Sen. Bob Menendez. (Edwin J. Torres/ NJ Governor’s Office)

The Democratic rush to find a replacement for Sen. Bob Menendez is in full swing after federal prosecutors unveiled a second indictment accusing him of trading cash for official favors, even as New Jersey’s senior senator says he will not step down.

Menendez’s second corruption case has already resulted in a new primary challenger who can mount a robust campaign against him and led to more than half of the state’s Democratic county leaders calling for his resignation, a loss of crucial support likely to hamper any attempt at a fourth full term.

During an address to the press Monday, Menendez again denied any wrongdoing and said he would not resign but stopped short of saying whether he would seek reelection when his seat comes up for a vote next year.

His announcement, which marked his first public appearance since the indictment, came days after calls for his resignation by top New Jersey Democrats, including Gov. Phil Murphy, legislative leaders in both chambers, and more than half of the state’s House delegation. The senator dismissed those calls as politically motivated.

“Some of the people calling for my resignation for political reasons say I have lost the trust with the people in New Jersey. That couldn’t be more wrong,” Menendez said.

Rep. Andy Kim (D-03), who was among those to call for the senator’s resignation, joined the Senate race a day after the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York accused Menendez of accepting cash, gold, and a luxury car in exchange for aid to three New Jersey businessmen, who were also charged.

“This is not something I expected to do, but I believe New Jersey deserves better. We cannot jeopardize the Senate or compromise our country’s integrity. I believe it’s time we restore faith in our democracy, and that’s why I am stepping up and running for Senate,” Kim said in a statement Saturday.

Menendez already faced a challenge from Kyle Jasey, a real estate investor and son of Assemblywoman Mila Jasey (D-Essex), and it’s possible other prominent House members like Reps. Josh Gottheimer (D-05) and Mikie Sherrill (D-11) will launch their own Senate campaigns. Gottheimer and Sherrill were among those to call for Menendez’s resignation.

Historically, New Jersey’s incumbent U.S. senators have rarely had trouble reclaiming their spot on the ballot, though few have run under the circumstances Menendez would find himself should he opt for a reelection bid.

Former Sen. Clifford Case, a Republican, was the last U.S. senator from New Jersey to lose a primary race in 1978 after narrowly losing the contest to former Ronald Reagan speechwriter Jeff Bell, who lost in the general election. Case is the only incumbent U.S. senator from New Jersey to lose reelection in a primary in more than a century. 

Toeing the line

Should Menendez choose to run for a fourth term, he may end up doing so without an advantage afforded to most incumbent officeholders in New Jersey — an organizational line.

Unlike every other state in the union, New Jersey arranges its ballot by slogan instead of office sought. That allows county party organizations to group their chosen candidates within a single column, lending an advantage to down-ballot candidates. 2024’s ballot will be headlined by presidential candidates.

Though Menendez is likely to retain an organizational line in Hudson County — which forms the base of his political support — if he chooses to run again, party leaders elsewhere have urged Menendez to resign, concerned his legal troubles would drag Democrats down.

That list includes at least 11 of the state’s 21 Democratic county chairs, including the chair and vice-chair of the Democratic State Committee and party leaders from Democratic powerhouses like Essex, Bergen, and Middlesex counties.

“We just hope he’s able to get through this, but at this time, it’s probably best that — for his own good, for the party’s good, for everybody’s good — that he step aside,” said LeRoy Jones, the Essex County and state Democratic chairman.

Atlantic County Democratic Chair Michael Suleiman went further than some colleagues. He said he would ask his county’s committee people to amend their convention rules to bar anyone under federal indictment from seeking the county party’s endorsement after this year’s legislative elections.

“I joked that, with the history of Atlantic City, you’d think that it would’ve already been in there, but hey, what the hell — first time for everything,” Suleiman said.

The Atlantic County Democrat said the move was spurred by concerns over how Menendez’s legal troubles would affect Democrats in this year’s local and legislative elections, adding he hopes other leaders in other counties would weigh in.

Other party leaders have, so far, avoided choosing sides. Those include Camden County Democratic Chairman Jim Beach, a state senator, and Joseph Andl, who leads the Democratic committee in Kim’s home county of Burlington. Beach and Andl did not return calls seeking comment.

So far, party leaders have not coalesced around Kim’s days-old candidacy. Jones said it is too early to stake ground in that contest with the Senate election still far off. The primary is in June.

GET THE MORNING HEADLINES DELIVERED TO YOUR INBOX

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Nikita Biryukov
Nikita Biryukov

Nikita Biryukov most recently covered state government and politics for the New Jersey Globe. His tenure there included revelatory stories on marijuana legalization, voting reform and Rep. Jeff Van Drew's decamp to the Republican Party. Earlier, he worked as a freelancer for The Home News Tribune and The Press of Atlantic City.

MORE FROM AUTHOR