Fresh off escaping a federal bribery conviction thanks to a hung jury, two-term Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez is almost sure to win his party’s nomination on Tuesday for re-election in New Jersey against only token opposition. That Menendez — who has been in Congress for 26 years and is seeking his third Senate term — is about to become the Democrats’ nominee without any real primary challenge says a great deal about the party and the U.S. political system.
In 2015, the Obama Justice Department’s public integrity unit, with the personal approval of Attorney General Eric Holder, prosecuted Menendez on a dozen federal corruption and bribery charges. The 12-count indictment alleged that the senator received a slew of expensive gifts — including multiple lavish vacations in Paris and in Caribbean villas via a private jet and more than $750,000 in campaign contributions — from Menendez’s friend and supporter Salomon Melgen. Melgen also wrote numerous large checks to the New Jersey state Democratic Party to aid Menendez’s various campaigns and legal defense funds.
These luxurious gifts, prosecutors said, were given in exchange for Menendez’s help with various disputes Melgen had with federal health agencies. Menendez also intervened to secure numerous government contracts for Melgen. The indictment also detailed how “Menendez helped three of Melgen’s foreign-born girlfriends obtain visas to visit the United States.”
At his criminal trial, Menendez was the beneficiary of decades’ worth of Supreme Court rulings that have diluted federal bribery statutes to the point of virtual impotence: Unless prosecutors can produce a “smoking gun” in which a lawmaker explicitly states that he’s doing favors in exchange for money or gifts, convictions are close to impossible to obtain. The jurors who refused to vote to convict Menendez cited the lack of a “smoking gun.” The Trump DOJ originally announced its intention to retry Menendez following the hung jury, but shortly thereafter changed its mind.
On April 26, the Senate Ethics Committee “severely admonished” Menendez in a Public Letter of Admonition, which detailed that the committee “found that over a six-year period [Menendez] knowingly and repeatedly accepted gifts of significant value from Dr. Melgen without obtaining required Committee approval” and “failed to publicly disclose certain gifts as required by Senate Rule and federal law.” It concluded that the senator’s “actions reflected discredit upon the Senate” and that his “failure to disclose numerous gifts while simultaneously using [his] Senate office in furtherance of Dr. Melgen’s interests created, at a minimum, the appearance of impropriety.”
How, then, is this sleazy career politician — who just barely escaped a multi-count federal bribery conviction — running for re-election in a Democratic Party primary with essentially no opposition? The answer is clear: because Democratic Party leaders, both in New Jersey and in Washington, unified in support of Menendez from the start and never stopped supporting him.
Even after the Obama DOJ indicted Menendez and detailed all of the behavior cited by the Senate Ethics Committee, the Democrats’ senior lawmaker in Washington, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, made his solidarity with Menendez clear, heralding him as “one of the best legislators in the Senate and is always fighting hard for the people of his state,” adding: “I am confident he will continue to do so in the weeks and months ahead.”
Their united front, along with the massive war chest of money Menendez has compiled from corporate interests, has made it essentially impossible for any credible primary challenge to be mounted against him.
For a very short time, it looked as if Menendez might face a credible challenger. In December, Michael Starr Hopkins (pictured, right), an African-American lawyer who worked on both the Hillary Clinton and Obama campaigns, signaled his intention to run, asking, quite reasonably, about Menendez’s sleazy behavior over years: “If what Menendez did doesn’t disqualify you from serving in the Senate, then what does?”
Touting his commitment to “fight for Medicare for all” and other progressive causes, Hopkins argued that re-nominating “a candidate whose name is synonymous with corruption only muddies the waters, making it easy for Republicans to cry hypocrisy and for voters across the country to say that ‘both parties’ are rotten.”
But a mere four months later, Hopkins announced he was dropping his bid. The reason? He could not raise anywhere near the money needed to mount a credible challenge because, as Politico put it, Menendez “has the support of virtually all of the top Democrats in the state.” In his letter announcing his withdrawal, Hopkins wrote: “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.”
The speed and unanimity with which Democratic leaders rallied to endorse Menendez’s re-election was dizzying. As the New York Times reported in November:
When a mistrial was declared Thursday in the federal corruption trial of Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, it seemed that Mr. Menendez could face a tenuous political future. …
Hours later, the likelihood that Mr. Menendez, a Democrat, might face any real threat from within the party grew dim.
Every major Democratic power broker in the state quickly endorsed Mr. Menendez for re-election in 2018: Philip D. Murphy, the governor-elect; Senator Cory Booker; Stephen M. Sweeney, the senate president; Craig Coughlin, the incoming speaker of the State Assembly; George E. Norcross, an influential political leader in southern New Jersey; and the county chairs in northern Democratic strongholds such as Bergen, Hudson, Passaic, Essex and Middlesex.
Mounting a campaign without the support of powerful Democratic leaders is almost a lost cause in a state where party machines remain deeply entrenched. Leaders can direct donors and can determine other essential political advantages, such as the line where a candidate’s name is listed on a ballot.
In April, an obscure publisher of a small community newspaper, Lisa McCormick, announced that she would run, but she has basically no money and zero chance of defeating Menendez. As New Jersey’s political website put it, Menendez has “the support of all 21 county committees” of the state’s Democratic Party.
In so many ways beyond the corruption and sleaze, Menendez is the classic representation of what the Democratic Party is at the national level. He first made it to the Senate when he was appointed by former Goldman Sachs CEO and then-Democratic New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine. Though he is a somewhat reliable Democratic vote on standard domestic debates, in the area where he has exerted the greatest influence as chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, he has been far to the right, especially recently, despite being from one of the country’s bluest states.
In 2006, he joined with the GOP and right-wing Democrats to enact the Bush-Cheney Military Commissions Act, which stripped war on terror detainees of the right to judicial review (it was later struck down as unconstitutional). He is one of the Senate’s most extreme Iran hawks, having opposed Obama’s Iran deal (as the party’s senior foreign policy senator) and serving as one of the most vocal loyalists for a pro-regime change Iranian cult that had been on the U.S. terrorist list (once it was removed from the list, money associated with the group began flowing aggressively to Mendenez).
Most of all, the New Jersey Democrat is one of the most fanatical loyalists to the Israeli government and AIPAC. He has been the honored guest of the American Friends of Likud, along with officials from the Netanyahu government. AIPAC supported him vocally during his corruption trial, and after his hung jury, he received what the JTA described as a “hero’s welcome” in March. Menendez was also one of the co-sponsors of a bill that would have made it a crime for companies to support a boycott of Israel, which the American Civil Liberties Union denounced as a severe threat to free speech.
Indeed, the list of groups, corporations, and figures that donated to Menendez’s legal defense fund in his corruption case is dominated by AIPAC supporters and officials, as this excellent reporting from NorthJersey.com, based on IRS records, shows. It includes Sheldon Adelson, as well as a real estate firm owned and controlled by part of the Kushner family.
This is how calcified the Democratic Party is: They even unite behind an incumbent who is drowning in sleaze and corruption, who was just “severely admonished” by the Senate Ethics Committee, whose legal defense was funded by far-right figures, and who has used his senior leadership role to repeatedly join with the Bush-Cheney and right-wing GOP factions against his own party’s supposed positions. Not only do they unite behind him, but they ensure that no primary challenge can even happen — they deny their own voters the right to decide if they want Menendez — by making it impossible for any such challengers to raise money from funders who rely on the largesse of Democratic officeholders and who thus, do not want to run afoul of their decreed preferences.
In the 2018 cycle, not a single Democratic incumbent has yet been defeated by a primary challenge. As The Intercept’s political reporting team has spent the year documenting, the entire party apparatus is designed to ensure that only rich, establishment candidates can win, while doing everything possible to block and destroy the chances of outsider, insurgent candidates (see the superb reporting from my colleague Aída Chávez on Sunday about the obstacles put in front of working-class Democratic primary challenges, often by their own party’s structures).
It’s a party that lacks any vibrancy or movement. It’s stilted, stifled, and ossified. They don’t even allow primary challenges to rotted incumbents who have oozed a suffocating stench of corruption during almost three decades of incumbency in Congress, even if that incumbent has repeatedly blocked the party’s own agenda. As was also demonstrated by Hillary Clinton’s recent endorsement of the corruption-tainted Andrew Cuomo over his progressive primary challenger, Cynthia Nixon, seeking to become New York state’s first female governor: All that matters to them is closing ranks around one another, clinging as tightly as they can to their own prerogatives, preventing anyone from disrupting their ability to greedily feed at the corporate-fueled trough which keeps them fat and satiated.
Those who think that this critical focus on Democrats will empower Trump and the Republicans, or that it serves the GOP’s interests, have it exactly backward. As Vox’s Matt Yglesias so deftly documented after Trump’s victory, “The Obama years have created a Democratic Party that’s essentially a smoking pile of rubble.”
A refusal to attempt to improve the party, to inject a new form of politics and new voices, to change what has caused its collapse as a national political force, will ensure more victories by more Trumps and more Republicans for years to come. And it’s hard to imagine anything that better exemplifies that sickness, that danger, than rank-closing around someone like Bob Menendez.