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Notes on the State of Politics: Sept. 26, 2023

Dear Readers: This is the latest edition of Notes on the State of Politics, which features short updates on elections and politics.

The Editors

New Jersey Senate: Gold bars, cash in envelopes — and a primary challenge

In 1999, then-former Gov. Edwin Edwards (D-LA), who had spent a not-insignificant chunk of his 16 years as governor in and out of court, quipped, “People say I’ve had brushes with the law. That’s not true. I’ve had brushes with overzealous prosecutors.” At the time, Edwards was being accused of taking part in a bribery scheme involving riverboat casino licenses — he was later found guilty and served nearly a decade in jail.

At a press conference yesterday, it was New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez (D) who found himself in the hot seat. On Friday, the three-term senator, who is running for reelection next year, was indicted on federal corruption charges. During a search of his home, federal agents found roughly $500,000 in cash stuffed in envelopes along with gold bars and other luxury items that the Manhattan U.S. Attorney’s office alleges were bribes the senator took in exchange to help Egyptian interests.

Menendez, like Edwards, is no stranger to the courtroom: A year before his 2018 reelection, a corruption case against him ended in a mistrial. Menendez has urged the public to afford him the presumption of innocence. In what seemed like an echo of Edwards’s quote from 1999, Menendez criticized the prosecution, “Remember, prosecutors get it wrong sometimes. Sadly, I know that.”

While many of his colleagues, at least those from his home state’s delegation, acknowledge that Menendez is presumed innocent until proven guilty, they have still called on him to resign. Over the weekend, Gov. Phil Murphy (D-NJ) as well as 7 of the 9 Garden State Democrats in the House called for his resignation. An eighth Democrat, Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D, NJ-12), a longtime friend of the senator’s, called the charges “very concerning” but stopped short of explicitly calling for him to step aside. Lastly, Rep. Rob Menendez Jr. (D, NJ-8) has defended his father. While national Democrats are treading more lightly, some prominent figures have said Menendez should resign — among them are former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D, CA-11). Earlier today, Menendez’s home-state colleague, Cory Booker (D-NJ), joined in on the chorus of calls for him to step aside. But Menendez is showing no signs of stepping down voluntarily. (This is the state of play as we know it at the time of publication on mid-day Tuesday — things may change quickly, though, as there has been a flood of calls for Menendez to step aside).

Menendez’s intransigence prompted a bold move from Rep. Andy Kim (D, NJ-3): On Saturday, the three-term member from South Jersey announced that he’d run for Senate. Though other Democratic challengers may emerge, Kim’s early move may help build statewide name recognition. Kim can also credibly claim to have been ahead of the curve throughout the recent Menendez saga — he was the first major New Jersey Democrat to call for the senator’s resignation.

We don’t know exactly what type of, or if any, behind-the-scenes politicking went on before Kim’s announcement. Still, it stands to reason that Kim — a non-machine politician in a state still influenced to some degree by machine politics — would have wanted to have some ducks lined up before mounting a challenge to his senior senator. One of the notable voices calling for Menendez’s resignation was 1st District Rep. Donald Norcross. Norcross represents the Camden area and has a brother, George, who is known for controlling a South Jersey political network (although the latter recently said he is taking a step back from politics as the strength of his machine has waned). For Kim, South Jersey may make for a nice statewide launching pad, while the Norcross machine could try its hand a picking Kim’s successor in the House.

In North Jersey, though, Menendez has built a durable machine of his own, with a base in Hudson County (Jersey City). Menendez’s pull was evidenced in last year’s NJ-8 primary, when no big-name Democrats ran against his son for an open seat. Although Menendez appears to have lost support from local Democratic parties in several key counties, he could still theoretically win a primary if his support in Hudson County holds, especially if more candidates enter the race. The party line system, one of New Jersey’s electoral quirks that has long been disliked by good government advocates, is the main reason why county-level parties hold outsized sway in the state.

Aside from Kim, two names to watch going forward will be Reps. Josh Gottheimer (D, NJ-5) and Mikie Sherrill (D, NJ-11). In 2016 and 2018, respectively, the two moderate Democrats flipped historically GOP districts in suburban areas of North Jersey, and both have been routinely mentioned as future statewide candidates. Gottheimer recently confirmed that he’ll fundraise with the younger Menendez (who could get a primary challenge from Hoboken Mayor Ravi Bhalla), making it seem less likely he’d challenge the elder. In addition to the Senate race, an open 2025 gubernatorial race looms, and Gottheimer and Sherrill could both hypothetically have their eyes on that race as well (Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop, another Democrat, announced a campaign for governor months ago).

Looking past the members of the House delegation, New Jersey First Lady Tammy Murphy is apparently giving the Senate race serious thought. Assuming he goes ahead with his reelection plans, a crowded primary would offer Menendez his best chance of eking out renomination.

For now, though, in a contest where Kim and Menendez are the main players (there are a few other minor candidates running), the former would seem to have a clear electability argument. We might say, though, that despite the baggage he’d bring to a general election, we’re skeptical Menendez would actually lose his seat in such a blue state. A general election featuring Menendez may still become a money pit for national Democrats, similar to what Ohio’s contest was last year for Republicans. Democrats are playing a ton of defense across the national Senate map this year — a single dime spent in New Jersey would be one dime too many.

In 2018, with his 2017 mistrial verdict in the rearview mirror, he took a lukewarm 62% in the primary against an underfunded challenger. In the general election, Bob Hugin, a wealthy businessman who positioned himself as a moderate, dug deep into his own pockets and self-funded virtually all of the nearly $40 million that his campaign spent. Still, Menendez won by double-digits, 54%-43%.

While Menendez got the job done in 2018, he still ran behind House Democratic candidates. That year, Democrats won the House popular vote 60%-39% in New Jersey, as they took all but one of the Garden State’s 12 seats — this was especially stunning considering that, before 2016, the state’s delegation was tied at 6-6. But in the Senate race, Hugin carried all six districts that were GOP-held earlier in the decade.

In 2018, the anti-Trump wave in the House struck New Jersey especially hard, and that likely provided a bit of a boost to Menendez up the ballot. The only three counties where he beat Booker’s 2014 margins were all wealthy, college-educated counties that have trended Democratic in the Trump era. As the Senate nominee, Kim may at least be in a better position to boost the rest of the Democratic ticket. Although he was dealt a generous hand in redistricting and got a friendly seat for 2022, he has a proven track record of garnering crossover support. As a challenger in 2018, he ran about 10 points ahead of Menendez in 2018. Two years later, as an incumbent, he was reelected by 8 points as his district very narrowly stuck with Donald Trump, making him one of just seven House Democrats to win a Trump seat that year.

New Jersey is tough sledding for any Republican running in a federal statewide race, but one potentially high-profile challenger is Rep. Jeff Van Drew (R, NJ-2), who is reportedly considering the race. Van Drew, a longtime Democratic state senator, came to the House as part of the aforementioned 2018 wave but defected to the GOP after a little less than a year in Congress, when Democrats were first moving to impeach Trump. Since switching sides, Van Drew has been a reliable vote for party leadership. Hugin, Menendez’s 2018 foe, now chairs the state GOP. Meanwhile, Mendham Mayor Christine Serrano Glassner is the only somewhat credible announced Republican.

If this were an earlier era, perhaps Menendez would feel more compelled to resign, given the seriousness of the indictment. But simply riding out the storm has proven to be an increasingly successful template for officeholders. In early 2019, after pictures from his old yearbook that appeared to be racially insensitive surfaced, most major Virginia Democrats called for Gov. Ralph Northam (D-VA) to step aside. But Northam, staying put, vowed to make reconciliation a theme of his governorship and eventually left office with positive approval ratings. As he was on his way to his 2016 win, Donald Trump faced countless calls to relinquish the GOP nomination as aspects of his past came to light — and we know how that election went. So, we may now just be in an era where the public is just more tolerant of, or at least numb to, these types of political shenanigans. The other consideration for Menendez is that resigning from office could be part of some sort of plea deal later on down the road — we wonder if something similar will happen with embattled Rep. George Santos (R, NY-3).

In any case, we are keeping the New Jersey Senate race as Safe Democratic for now, but we’ll continue to monitor the state of the primary.

Changes in couple of blue Mid-Atlantic seats

Table 1: Crystal Ball House ratings changes

Member/District Old Rating New Rating
MD-6 Open (Trone, D) Safe Democratic Likely Democratic
NJ-3 Open (Kim, D) Safe Democratic Likely Democratic

As we alluded to earlier, with Kim taking the plunge against Menendez, the South Jersey NJ-3 is now an open seat. Burlington County, a Biden +20 county that is in Philadelphia’s orbit, makes up the majority of the district. The district also takes in a few municipalities in Trenton’s Mercer County, and includes an arm into Monmouth County, which is the reddest part of the district. The result is a seat that is a little less blue than New Jersey as a whole. Both parties have several prospects who could run in the district, though the Democrats have a stronger bench of legislators who are considering the race. Still, without a strong incumbent in Kim, we are moving the seat to the edge of the playing field and downgrading it from Safe Democratic to Likely Democratic.

Going down the eastern seaboard, we thought it was reasonable to make the same change in western Maryland’s 6th District, which opened up earlier this year on account of Rep. David Trone’s (D) decision to run for the state’s open U.S. Senate seat. This is the most marginal of the state’s 7 Democratic-held seats — before going to Biden by a 54%-44% margin in 2020, it gave Hillary Clinton just a 1-point edge in 2016. The basic situation is similar to NJ-3: with an incumbent running for Senate, Democrats have a multi-way, contested primary. While Kim’s strength as an incumbent came from his crossover support, the wealthy Trone’s ability to self-finance is an asset that whoever comes out of the Democratic primary likely won’t have. Though the Republicans get their biggest margins in the western part of this district, they would likely be best off running a candidate who could have some appeal in Frederick County, a Trump-to-Biden county that voted Democratic in all of last year’s statewide contests.

Moving south across the Potomac, one district that we’re actually not changing our Safe Democratic rating for is in our home state. In what made for some unfortunate news last week, three-term Rep. Jennifer Wexton (D) announced that she’d been diagnosed with progressive supranuclear palsy and would retire. Wexton was something of a transitional figure in her Northern Virginia district: When she defeated now-former Rep. Barbara Comstock (R) in 2018, it marked the first time in nearly 40 years that Loudoun County, the core of the district, was represented by a Democrat. Since then, the Democrats’ bench has grown in the district as it has become more reliably blue territory. Though Wexton received a spirited challenge from Vietnamese-American veteran Hung Cao last year (who is now running for Senate and has ruled out dropping down to the House race), Biden carried the seat with close to 60% in 2020, so we don’t think it’ll be a realistic target for Republicans in a presidential year.

The main reason we’re keeping VA-10 in the Safe Democratic column while moving the other two to Likely Democratic is the presidential numbers in each district: Biden’s 18-point margin in VA-10 is larger than his 14-point edge in NJ-3 and 10-point advantage in MD-6. That said, some of the key legislative contests that we outlined last week are located within VA-10’s borders — specifically state senate Districts 30 and 31 — so this November’s elections may serve as something of a temperature check for the area.

P.S. Utah still Safe Republican

Going back to the Senate just briefly, if Menendez has a reputation as one of the chamber’s problem children, one of its most strait-laced members has also been in the news lately. Earlier this month, Sen. Mitt Romney (R) announced that he would not seek a second term representing Utah. Romney’s announcement would seem to mark the end of one of the most unique careers in American politics today: in the course of less than a decade, he went from the party’s standard bearer to, at times, what seemed like a voice in the wilderness against Trumpism.

While Romney may have had some trouble securing renomination, he cited age — given his still-youthful appearance, it is easy to forget that he is 76 and would be in his eighties at the end of another term — and the need for new blood as his reason for retiring.

In any case, Utah Republicans have won every Senate race since 1974 by double-digits, although last year, Independent Evan McMullin held Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) to a margin of just over ten points.