primary play

Menendez indictment sets off game of musical chairs in New Jersey

Menendez’s son, who serves in the House, is also facing serious competition after his father’s indictment

Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) speaks during a press conference at Hudson County Community College’s North Hudson Campus on September 25, 2023 in Union City, New Jersey.

The recent indictment of Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) has triggered an increasingly complex game of musical chairs as a growing number of potential primary opponents weigh campaigns to unseat him in next year’s election.

Meanwhile, the political fallout from the federal corruption charges — which Menendez has vehemently denied amid mounting calls for his resignation — is shaping several down-ballot races in New Jersey, extending beyond federal office into state and municipal contests.

“It’s created this whole domino effect,” Steven Fulop, the longtime Democratic mayor of Jersey City who is now running for governor, said in an interview with Jewish Insider on Tuesday. “You see that one person changing in the hierarchy at the top is impacting every level of government.”

On Saturday, Rep. Andy Kim (D-NJ) was the first to announce he would run against Menendez in 2024. A spokesperson for Kim’s campaign declined to comment on Tuesday.

While experts believe that Kim represents a serious threat to Menendez, the primary field is likely to expand as other lawmakers are rumored to be plotting their own bids, including Reps. Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ) and Mikie Sherrill (D-NJ), both of whom have called on Menendez to resign.

In a statement shared with JI on Tuesday, a spokesperson for Sherrill said the congresswoman is currently “focused on delivering results and serving the people of New Jersey,” adding that she would be donating campaign contributions from Menendez to local “charities that serve families experiencing homelessness.”

Gottheimer, for his part, said on Tuesday that he is now focused on averting a government shutdown rather than his political future. A spokesperson for the congressman declined to comment.

The two House Democrats had been seen as interested in mounting campaigns to succeed New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, a term-limited Democrat who is retiring at the end of his term.

Murphy’s wife, Tammy, is also reportedly considering a primary challenge for Menendez’s seat, which he has held since 2006. Other potential candidates include Reps. Donald Norcross (D-NJ) and Frank Pallone (D-NJ) as well as former Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-NJ), who was unseated last cycle.

While a growing list of Senate Democrats have urged Menendez to resign, several leading pro-Israel groups have suggested that they will continue to back the embattled senator, who is among the most outspoken supporters of Israel in Congress.

“The pro-Israel community deeply appreciates Sen. Menendez’s leadership in strengthening the U.S.-Israel relationship,” Marshall Wittmann, a spokesperson for AIPAC, said in a statement to JI on Tuesday. “Like all Americans, he deserves the presumption of innocence.”

The pro-Israel group, whose political action committee endorsed Menendez’s reelection in March, is a long-standing ally of the senator, who until recently served as the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Menendez relinquished his post on Friday, amid shocking allegations that he and his wife, Nadine, had accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes in exchange for government favors.

Rachel Rosen, a spokesperson for Democratic Majority for Israel, echoed AIPAC’s remarks in a statement to JI on Tuesday. “Sen. Menedez has been a leader on foreign policy, a champion of the U.S.-Israel relationship and a steadfast advocate for the people of New Jersey,” she said. “Like every American, he is entitled to a full and fair legal process.”

DMFI’s PAC has yet to release its endorsements for the 2024 election.

NORPAC, a pro-Israel advocacy group in northern New Jersey, has likewise expressed support for Menendez, telling donors in a recent statement that it intends to continue backing his reelection. “The pro-Israel community doesn’t abandon its supporters until there’s a verdict,” Phil Goldschmiedt, a NORPAC leader and member of AIPAC’s national council, said in an interview with JI on Tuesday. “We stick by our friends.”

Goldschmiedt said he had also reached out to Menendez’s son, Rep. Robert Menendez Jr. (D-NJ), to express support for his reelection campaign. The freshman incumbent is now preparing for a potential primary challenge from Hoboken Mayor Ravi Bhalla, who has indicated that he is weighing a bid.

In a statement shared with JI on Tuesday, Rob Horowitz, a spokesperson for Bhalla, said the mayor is “seriously considering running for Congress,” adding: “If he decides to run, he will be a formidable candidate with the capacity to raise the necessary amount of money to get his message across to 8th District Democratic primary voters.”

Menendez Jr., who is virtually alone among New Jersey Democrats in defending his father, announced he would run for a second term on Monday. “I am focused on working every single day to represent my neighbors to the best of my ability,” he said in a statement shared with JI. “And I will be running for reelection based on that record so I can continue to serve the residents of this district that I love, in stark contrast to those who may run to further their own naked political ambition.”

Goldschmiedt, who helped fundraise for the younger Menendez in 2022, said the congressman has been a dependable supporter of Israel during his time in the House. 

Bhalla, Hoboken’s first Sikh mayor, has built relationships with Jewish constituents and has been active in confronting a rise in antisemitism. He has also expressed admiration for the Jewish state, which he visited as mayor and while studying abroad as a law student.

“Israel is just an amazing country, and the residents of Israel are extraordinarily resilient people,” Bhalla said in an interview with JI in 2021. “It’s a tough environment in which the State of Israel operates, and that must, or at least as I observe it, that likely creates some form of strength and resilience.”

In his bid for a third term last cycle, Kim, a former national security adviser in the Obama administration, notched endorsements from DMFI PAC, the Jewish Democratic Council of America and J Street, a progressive Israel advocacy group. The JDCA, which endorsed Menendez in 2018, declined to comment.

Meanwhile, in its first round of congressional endorsements released earlier this year, AIPAC said it would back Gottheimer, Sherrill, Norcross and Pallone for reelection to the House, potentially complicating the race to unseat Menendez. Gottheimer, a Jewish Democrat, has long been viewed as one of the staunchest supporters of Israel in Congress.

For her part, Murphy, whose father was Jewish, has visited Israel multiple times. The first lady has never run for elective office.

Mike Berg, the communications director for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said that GOP leadership is “keeping a close eye on the New Jersey Senate race” as the primary field continues to shape up. “The Democrats in Washington definitely aren’t happy Bob Menendez got caught selling out our country’s national security for some cash and gold bars,” he told JI on Tuesday. 

In recent days, Menendez, who is facing bribery charges for the second time in his senatorial tenure, has defiantly rejected calls for his resignation. “I recognize that this will be the biggest fight yet,” he said on Monday. “But as I have stated throughout this whole process, I firmly believe that when all the facts are presented, not only will I be exonerated, but I still will be New Jersey’s senior senator.” 

Fulop, the lone Democrat currently running for governor, said on Tuesday that he did not believe Menendez would resign, even if he predicted that the senator would not ultimately seek reelection. “I think it would be really hard for him to raise money for a legal defense fund and a campaign,” said the Jersey City mayor, who unsuccessfully challenged Menendez when he was a congressman in 2004.

Now that the tides are shifting against Menendez, Fulop envisioned a more heated primary that could dramatically reorder the hierarchy of political representation in the Garden State, “trickling down” even to the state and municipal levels.

“This whole change over the next six months,” he told JI, “is going to have huge political ramifications across the entire political landscape of New Jersey.”

Subscribe now to
the Daily Kickoff

The politics and business news you need to stay up to date, delivered each morning in a must-read newsletter.