Bob Menendez’s Hail Mary: Just keep running


Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) appears to be looking for a way to hold influence over the Democratic Party, even as he’s on trial on federal corruption charges.

Why it matters: That’s what Democratic insiders in New Jersey now think of Menendez’s surprise independent bid to retain the Senate seat he’s held since 2006.

  • Democratic sources told Axios they think the move by Menendez — until recently the powerful chair of the Senate’s Foreign Relations committee — could be a ploy to demand favors, such as fundraising for legal expenses in exchange for leaving the race.
  • Menendez scoffs at the notion, but his independent campaign has cast a cloud over Democrats’ efforts to keep the seat blue in November.
  • His bid landed with a thud on New Jersey Democrats, many of whom already had called for his resignation, ensuring little-to-no institutional support back home.

The big picture: Those who know Menendez say it’s in his political DNA to scrap and claw to the last breath.

  • “He is an aggressive, bareknuckle type of player that is relentless. Those same character traits are what you’re seeing today,” Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop, a Democrat running for governor next yeartold Axios.
  • Micah Rasmussen, who was press secretary to former New Jersey Gov. James McGreevey (D), told Axios that Menendez’s independent campaign was him “extending his sell-by date, at least until August,” referring to the Aug. 16 deadline for Menendez to remove his name from the ballot.
  • “If he is a carcass, then there’s no point in anyone helping him, going easy on him or lifting a finger for him,” Rasmussen said.

Yes, but: National Democrats say they aren’t that worried that Menendez could become a general election spoiler in a state that hasn’t sent a Republican to the Senate in 52 years.

  • “We’re going to make sure a Republican is not elected to that seat,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said last week.
  • A national Democratic source working on Senate campaigns told Axios the party doesn’t view Menendez as a serious general election threat.
  • A Fairleigh Dickinson University poll in April found that an independent Menendez bid would cut into Democratic nominee Andy Kim’s margin of support, but not by enough to be decisive.

What he’s saying: Menendez rejected the idea that he’s running for office for any other reason than to win and serve a fourth term.

  • “My candidacy is not, and never was, about leveraging my fellow Democrats,” Menendez said in a statement to Axios. “I look forward to putting the rumors and speculation of my candidacy behind me and getting back to work for this great state.”

Catch up quick: The senator and his wife, Nadine, are accused of trading Menendez’s influence for “hundreds of thousands of dollars” in bribes — including gold bars.

  • Remaining a federal candidate allows him to raise and spend money for his legal fees.
  • Democratic sources speculated that Menendez could demand assistance in raising campaign funds to help with legal expenses in exchange for getting out of the race.

Behind the scenes: Menendez and his wife personally gathered some of the signatures needed to file for re-election as an independent, according to two sources familiar with the matter.

  • That’s even as the senator’s legal team has tried to shift blame to Nadine Menendez during the trial.

What’s next: Menendez has until August 16 to bow out and forgo his name appearing on the ballot in November.

  • His trial could last until August also.
  • Menendez has not said whether he would remove his name from the ballot if he’s convicted.

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