Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) is fighting for his political life amid rising calls to resign from Democratic colleagues in the wake of a federal indictment on bribery charges.
Menendez on Monday said he’s not going anywhere during a defiant appearance before the press, insisting he’d be exonerated.
But by 5 p.m., a second Senate Democratic colleague — Sen. Sherrod Brown (Ohio) — said he should step down, underscoring how the charges he faces have shaken the political earth beneath him.
“The allegations leveled against me are just that: allegations,” Menendez told the crowd in Union City, N.J. “I recognized that this will be the biggest fight yet. But as I have stated through this whole process, I firmly believe that when all of the facts are presented, not only will I be exonerated, but I will still be New Jersey’s senior senator.”
Menendez is up for reelection next year and may need to keep his Senate seat to raise money for his political defense.
“His reputational survival, if not his financial survival, depends on his ability to beat these charges,” said Jim McQueeny, who served as chief of staff to the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.). “And to beat these charges, you need the best lawyers. To get the best lawyers, you need the most money. To get the most money, you can’t give up your seat.”
“Bob can’t afford to give up his seat, literally,” McQueeny added.
But in running as a wounded politician, he is giving an opportunity for Republicans to pick up another Democratic seat in what should be a safe Democratic state, all while putting his colleagues on a defensive footing.
Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa.) was the first Democratic senator to call for Menendez to step down, joining a number of lawmakers in the House.
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D) has also called on him to resign, along with at least six Democratic members of New Jersey’s congressional delegation and several top Democrats at the Statehouse in Trenton.
Rep. Andy Kim (D-N.J.) has already announced a primary challenge against the sitting senator, with others potentially set to follow suit.
Those drumbeats are likely to get louder when lawmakers return to Washington on Tuesday and reporters ask Senate Democrats whether Menendez, who is up for reelection in 2024, should continue in office.
“This is about to get uncomfortable for the rest of his colleagues, and real quick,” said one former Senate Democratic leadership aide. “The gold bar question is going to prove irresistible.”
Prosecutors accuse Menendez and his wife, Nadine, of accepting “hundreds of thousands of dollars” in bribes in exchange for using his “power and influence” to enrich a trio of New Jersey businessmen.
Making headlines were the gold bars and $480,000 in cash stuffed into envelopes and clothing that authorities said they seized from the New Jersey Democrat.
Menendez has proclaimed his innocence and attempted to explain some of the questions during the press conference. He said the reason investigators found so much cash is because he keeps it on hand for “emergencies.”
“For 30 years, I have withdrawn thousands of dollars in cash from my personal savings account, which I have kept for emergencies and because of the history of my family facing confiscation in Cuba,” Menendez said.
One group that has continued to keep its powder dry on Menendez’s future is Senate Democratic leadership.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Friday that he backed Menendez’s decision to once again step down from his chairmanship of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, but he declined to go any further.
Sen. Dick Durbin (Ill.), the No. 2 Senate Democrat, also declined to say whether he should resign during a Sunday interview.
“This is a very serious charge. There’s no question about it,” Durbin told CNN on Sunday. “These are, in fact, indictments that have to be proven. Under the rule of law, a person who is accused is entitled to the presumption of innocence. And it’s the responsibility of the government to prove that case.”
Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), the state’s junior senator, has stayed mum since news of the indictments arrived.
Compounding Menendez’s issue is the timing. Unlike his first indictment in 2015, he does not have years to go before he faces the voters, and it is unlikely this legal battle will be resolved by election day next year.
The 2015 charges were ultimately dropped nearly three years later, only months before the state’s primary.
If Menendez escapes a primary, Republicans are already smelling blood at a rare opportunity to nab a seat in deep blue territory.
“You can appeal to a jury in a court of law, but when you appeal to voters in the court of public opinion, the most damning evidence is ‘The Gold Bars,'” McQueeny said. “I don’t know where you go from here.”
Menendez did not address whether he will seek a fourth term during his Monday appearance in Union City, N.J. However, all signs are pointing to him moving in that direction.
He appears well aware of the heavy rains he will have to weather in the storm ahead.
“Everything I’ve accomplished, I worked for despite the naysayers and everybody who has underestimated me,” Menendez said Monday. “I recognize this will be the biggest fight yet.”