In the end, New Jersey voters held their noses and voted for Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez.
The cloud of Menendez’s 2017 corruption trial hung over New Jersey’s Senate race — a normally safe seat that got uncomfortably close for Democrats as polls between Menendez and Republican challenger Bob Hugin tightened at times.
But ultimately, dislike of President Donald Trump and congressional Republicans prevailed over voters’ distrust of Menendez, who won reelection on Tuesday. Menendez was tried on corruption charges in 2017 but not actually convicted: The Justice Department accused him of using his office to benefit a Florida eye doctor named Salomon Melgen, who had been convicted of defrauding Medicare of more than $90 million. (Menendez called Melgen a friend but vehemently denied committing crimes to help him.)
While numerous polls noted that voters said they didn’t think Menendez was trustworthy, they apparently valued sending a Democrat to the Senate to stand up to President Donald Trump and Republicans more.
Menendez’s corruption trial presented a problem for Democrats, who started ramping up an anti-corruption message in 2018 aimed at stamping out lobbying and money in politics. Meanwhile, Hugin spent all summer attacking Menendez as corrupt, and it made an impression with voters.
“The corruption factor is just a cloud over this entire race,” said Carl Golden, a longtime political analyst and former spokesperson for past New Jersey Govs. Chris Christine, Todd Whitman, and Thomas Kean, in a recent interview with Vox.
Golden, a longtime political insider in New Jersey, told Vox he was not aware of any conversations Democrats had asking Menendez to step aside leading up to the race. But there was real anxiety within the state party about his chances, Golden added.
And Democrats ended up spending millions on Menendez’s seat. Senate Majority PAC has spent about $6 million on the race so far, recently putting down another $3 million in television ad buys to boost Menendez. Even though he won, that was not an enviable position to be in given an already tough Senate year when they were defending tougher seats. New Jersey’s Senate seat was never supposed to be that competitive.
“They have to spend a hell of a lot of money to get their people out to the polls,” Golden said. “I don’t think the national Democrats anticipated having to put any money into the New Jersey Senate race.”