What’s going on with Menendez’s independent run for Senate? New Jersey Democrats share their thoughts
What’s going on with Menendez’s independent run for Senate? New Jersey Democrats share their thoughts

New Jersey Democratic Senator Bob Menendez is facing 16 charges in federal court. He launched a bid for re-election as an independent earlier this month, but he appears to have held no campaign events, raised almost no money in the first quarter of this year, reportedly has no paid staff and – by poaching votes from Democratic Senate candidate Andy Kim – could give Republicans a safe seat.

New Jersey Democrats ABC News spoke to are divided over Menendez’s motivation.

Some – including Kim – speculate that his independent campaign could help him raise money for mounting legal costs. Others believe he could be trying to gain influence within the Democratic Party. And some Democrats in the state aren’t even sure whether Menendez will run at all.

“It is unbelievable that I am running for re-election for any reason other than to continue to fulfill my oath of office to serve and protect the people of New Jersey,” Menendez said in an emailed statement to ABC News. “My candidacy is not about influencing my Democratic colleagues, and it never has been.”

Many of these Democrats disagree.

Kim, who won the Democratic Senate primary in New Jersey earlier this month, said in an interview with ABC News that he believes Menendez is running as an independent because he needs money to pay legal fees related to his ongoing lawsuit.

Menendez is accused of accepting cash, gold bars, luxury watches and other perks from a New Jersey businessman in exchange for official favors for the businessman and the governments of Egypt and Qatar.

He pleaded not guilty and denies any wrongdoing.

“Depending on what happens with this process, there could be a long appeals process or other things, so he may have to fundraise for a while,” Kim said.

Julie Roginsky, a veteran Democratic political strategist from New Jersey, said she agreed.

“Bob Menendez faces millions of dollars in legal fees,” and since he is not wealthy, he will have to raise the money needed to pay them, Roginsky said.

According to former FEC Chairman Michael Toner, under Federal Election Commission rules, campaign funds can be used to cover some legal costs.

In New Jersey, independent candidates can remove their names from the ballot until Aug. 16. Even if Menendez withdraws his candidacy before that deadline, lobbyists and supporters who may be unwilling or unable to contribute to Menendez’s legal defense fund could donate to his campaign instead until then, Roginsky said.

Toner confirmed that a candidate cannot raise funds for a campaign if he or she does not qualify for the ballot in an upcoming election cycle. So, since Menendez qualifies for the ballot as an independent, he can continue to raise funds.

Two Democratic activists close to Democratic leadership in New Jersey have a different theory.

New Jersey is a reliably Democratic district, and if Menendez takes votes away from Kim, it could jeopardize that seat – and possibly the majority in the U.S. Senate in Washington.

The Democrats currently have a narrow majority of 51 seats in the Senate, but their chances of retaining them are slim: The Cook Political Report classifies one Democratic seat as safe for the Republicans, and three others are undecided.

Roginsky said she does not believe Menendez wants to cost the Democrats their Senate majority.

Menendez knows this and may be looking for leverage to force concessions in exchange for withdrawing from the race before late summer, investigators said. The concessions Menendez could demand, investigators speculated, could range from financial support to a pardon from President Joe Biden — however unlikely that may be politically — especially in an election year.

But for many of the state’s Democrats interviewed by ABC News, the question is not why, but whether Menendez will pursue his re-election bid.

“He’s not going to run again,” said David Wildstein, editor in chief of the New Jersey Globe and a longtime observer of New Jersey politics. He says he has known Menendez for 35 years. “I just don’t think he wants to suffer the humiliation of defeat.”

Kim, for his part, said he was not paying any attention to the speculation surrounding Menendez.

“I’m currently assuming he’s going to be on the ballot,” said Kim, who previously told ABC News, “Everyone knows that Bob Menendez is not running for the people of New Jersey, he’s running for himself.”

And, Kim said, he could count on the support of national Democrats if Menendez actually won re-election.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer was criticized for refusing to immediately endorse Kim after his victory in the primaries – and has not done so to date. However, Kim said he spoke to Schumer after his victory last Tuesday and since then they have been “talking more and more.”

“I definitely feel like we’re getting the support that we need,” Kim said. “And if there are things that we need in the future, I think we’ll certainly have that kind of coordination.”

By Seren