Rep. Rob Menendez faces career-threatening challenge in Tuesday primary 

Menendez is being hurt by his father’s legal troubles, and could lose against Hoboken Mayor Ravi Bhalla

Rep. Rob Menendez’s (D-NJ) political career could be collateral damage from his father’s legal troubles in Tuesday’s Democratic primary in New Jersey’s 8th Congressional District. His race, against Hoboken Mayor Ravi Bhalla, is a test of whether he and the state’s once-powerful political machine can neutralize the political baggage from his suddenly tainted last name. 

The corruption charges against Menendez’s father, Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ), are the key reason Bhalla has a solid shot at ousting the incumbent, political observers believe. With the elder Menendez currently on trial over federal bribery charges that scandal is front and center in the news at an inopportune time for Rob Menendez.

Hoping that a strong ground game can overcome the toxic statewide environment, Rob Menendez is touting endorsements from local political leaders and unions, but won’t have the benefit of the state’s previous ballot design, which helped boost local parties’ favored candidates.

David Wildstein, the editor of the New Jersey Globe, told Jewish Insider that it’s hard to predict the outcome of the race and that “no outcome would surprise me.”

The key questions on Tuesday, Wildstein said, will be whether voters hold Menendez responsible for his father’s actions and, at a more basic level, “Are voters really going to know that Rob Menendez isn’t Bob Menendez?” 

He said that recent ads from Menendez may have helped to push back on associations between him and his father, and he has benefitted from some unexpected developments in his father’s case — a delay in the start of the trial, a weeklong pause in the trial, former President Donald Trump’s New York City trial dominating local and national headlines and diminished media interest in the trial.

He said Menendez has also been effective in casting a shadow on Bhalla by highlighting allegations of corruption against the Hoboken mayor.

Bhalla’s administration is being sued by a longtime city official, alleging that Bhalla and his team retaliated against critics and used their political influence to support a cannabis dispensary linked to a political ally. He was also censured for ethics issues during his legal career.

Wildstein said that Menendez’s biggest strength will likely be among Hispanic voters, a majority in the district, and strong turnout in northern Hudson and Bergen counties. He would face an uphill battle if he loses support among older Hispanic voters in the region who are frustrated with his father, or younger Hispanic voters without the same history with the elder Menendez.

A Bhalla victory would likely be driven by high turnout in Bhalla’s hometown of Hoboken and in Jersey City, home to a younger, more transient, more liberal and less Hispanic population.

“Jersey City is big. Bhalla has got to have a big turnout and he’s got to win it big,” Wildstein said.

Historically, the junior Menendez’s backing from county party machines would likely have deterred a challenge. But Dan Cassino, the executive director of the Fairleigh Dickinson University poll, said the race will test the county parties’ ability to turn out voters. “Rob Menendez is hoping that there is still that lingering power,” he said.

Cassino said that progressive voters represent around 40% of the New Jersey Democratic electorate, and they view Menendez very negatively. If they dominate the primary electorate, Cassino said, Menendez is in trouble.

The staunchly pro-Israel Menendez has been endorsed by AIPAC. Bhalla has called for a cease-fire conditioned on the release of the hostages from Gaza and broadly said he wants to see the U.S. continue to support Israel, while also raising concerns about Israel’s conduct in Gaza.

A debate earlier this week highlighted the differences between the two on Israel policy.

Bhalla said he supports Israel and its right to defend itself, but “there have been way too many so-called accidents that have killed thousands and thousands of innocent lives.” The Hoboken mayor said that “Hamas needs to go, but I’m concerned that the actions of the IDF are exacerbating Hamas’s existence.”

He said the U.S. must “make sure that our foreign aid doesn’t result in the loss of innocent lives” and “pressure Israel… to respect international law,” which he described as an act of “love for Israel” to make them “a better country.”

Menendez called the Israeli attack that killed civilians in Rafah “a catastrophe” and that the U.S. should hold its “allies accountable for their mistakes,” but also called the war the most scrutinized in recent history.

He said the U.S. historically does not and should not pressure its allies to withdraw before it’s able to “end the scourge of Hamas.” He alleged that Bhalla’s call for a cease-fire would allow Hamas to survive, and said Hamas has the capacity to end the war by releasing the hostages and surrendering.

The two also debated the slogan “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.”

Bhalla said that he’s “not in a position to say” whether the slogan is antisemitic “because it depends on the context,” and that people interpret it differently. He said that people should not be punished for using the slogan.

Menendez said that the slogan is antisemitic and that “for a lot of people, and Jews on campus especially, [it] is a very dangerous, problematic thing to say.”

At the same time, he emphasized his support for free speech rights, noting that he had voted against censuring Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) for using the phrase and that he had worked with police to allow a cease-fire protest outside his house to continue.

An early April poll, conducted by the Bhalla campaign, showed Bhalla up 33% to 28%, underscoring the tight race.

Bhalla, buoyed by progressive enthusiasm, has also outraised Menendez, $2 million to $1.6 million as of the last campaign finance reports in mid-May. Groups affiliated with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus have spent close to $850,000 supporting Menendez and attacking Bhalla, and the National Association of Realtors has spent $62,000 supporting him. 

A single-candidate pro-Bhalla super PAC has spent $360,000 opposing Menendez, joined by an additional $50,000 from an Indian American group.

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.