In Tuesday night’s New Jersey senate primary, incumbent Senator Bob Menendez (D) is likely to prevail despite a very public corruption trial.
Sen. Menendez was accused of, among other things, accepting roughly $700,000 in political contributions from Dr. Salomon Melgen and, in return, acting on Melgen’s behalf in various disputes with the federal government. Melgen is an eye doctor who, in February, was sentenced to 17 years in prison for 67 separate charges involving the defrauding of the Medicare system to the tune of $73 million. Melgen is also ordered to pay at least $42 million in restitution to Medicare.
The 14-count indictment against Sen. Menendez and Dr. Melgen alleges a pattern of Melgen donating to Menendez’s campaign and flying him out on private jets to exclusive luxury vacations, including the “use of a Caribbean villa, access to an exclusive Dominican resort, a stay at a luxury hotel in Paris, expensive meals, golf outings, and tens of thousands of dollars in contributions to a legal defense fund.”
After Dr. Melgen made these various contributions, Menendez would use his clout as a U.S. Senator to arrange meetings with officials with whom Melgen was doing business. As CNN reported in January, Sen. Menendez did favors for Melgen often on the same day Melgen made financial contributions to funds benefiting Menendez:
For example, prosecutors tried to demonstrate a connection between a $60,000 donation to Menendez’s legal defense fund and the New Jersey Democratic State Committee and a request by Menendez the same day to meet with Ambassador William Brownfield about a cargo contract dispute involving Melgen.
Despite the heap of evidence prosecutors assembled in their case against Menendez, the trial ended in a hung jury split 10-2 in favor of acquittal due to stringent requirements the U.S. Supreme Court put in place in order to obtain a corruption conviction.
In the 2016 McDonnell v. United States decision, former Governor Bob McDonnell (R-Virginia) had his corruption convictions vacated in an 8-0 vote by the nation’s highest court. Justices argued that there’s no corruption unless a public official explicitly states an action s/he is taking that is favorable to a benefactor is done for the sole purpose of trading money for favors. Federal prosecutors declined to retry Sen. Menendez due to the high burden of proof necessary to convict him of corruption.
On Tuesday night’s primary, Menendez is expected to easily dispatch community paper publisher Lisa McCormick, who is his only opponent on the Democratic ballot. The Democratic incumbent briefly faced a challenge from progressive challenger and former Obama staffer Michael Starr Hopkins, an attorney who called out Menendez’s self-serving behavior in a December op-ed in The Hill.
“U.S. senators are supposed to serve the people, not themselves. Yet Menendez was indicted for repeatedly using his position to benefit a wealthy donor in exchange for gifts, private flights, luxury vacations, and huge contributions,” Hopkins wrote. “If what Menendez did doesn’t disqualify you from serving in the Senate, then what does?”
However, Hopkins dropped out of the race in March, following the hung jury verdict essentially acquitting Menendez.
“Unfortunately, in a campaign system requiring more and more money to run for public office, and running in one of the most expensive media markets in the United States, we fell shy of our financial goals,” Hopkins said in a public statement. “In a campaign system such as we have that is stacked against the average guy seeking public office to challenge an incumbent, prodigious fundraising is practically the only way to get the traction needed to keep a campaign afloat.”
Hopkins is right — Menendez has, according to the Federal Election Commission records dating back to May 16 of this year, raised more than $5 million for his campaign war chest, putting him in second place behind Republican challenger Robert Hugin, who has raised more than $8 million. Lisa McCormick jumped in the race following Hopkins’ exit just before the filing deadline. However, there are no available FEC records for McCormick as of this writing. A CrowdPAC online fundraiser for McCormick shows two contributions for a total of $13.
In a column earlier this week, The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald noted that unseating Menendez in the primary is essentially impossible due to the Democratic establishment closing ranks around him in spite of the corruption allegations. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer called the embattled New Jersey Democrat “one of the best legislators in the Senate,” and all 21 county-level Democratic committees in New Jersey have endorsed Menendez’s re-election campaign.
Menendez is expected to easily dispatch McCormick in the primary. However, Republican frontrunner Robert Hugin is within four points of Menendez, according to Fairleigh-Dickinson poll results released on May 25. As of this writing, there have been zero Democratic incumbents defeated in primaries this year.
Tom Cahill is a contributor for Grit Post who covers political and economic news. He lives in Bend, Oregon. Send him an email at tom DOT v DOT cahill AT gmail DOT com.