US Senator Robert Menendez (D) is a formidable figure not only in New Jersey, but in the United States as a whole. As the chairman of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he commands an influential position in shaping US policy with other parts of the world. The man did not get there by accident. After graduating law school, he attained public office entering the Union City Board of Education and then mayor. From there, a jump to the NJ state legislature propelled him further to the US House of Representatives. Governor Jon Corzine appointed Menendez to fill his vacated spot in the US Senate, which Menendez then solidified after being elected to that position, one he has held ever since.
Menendez, New Jersey’s senior senator, has weathered some storms as well. Leading up to the 2018 general, his most grueling contest, he came out bloodied but still a winner in a primary where political small-fry Lisa McCormack took 40% from the embattled incumbent. Menendez was undergoing a federal investigation, one which some thought would prove a fatal anchor around his neck as he faced down Celgene executive (and later NJGOP State Chairman) Bob Hugin. When Menendez came away from the court where a mistrial was called, he issued a warning after blasting the FBI. “Certain elements of the FBI and of our state cannot understand, or even worse except, that the Latino kid from Union City and Hudson County can grow up to be a United States Senator and be honest. I cannot tell you how many people have told me that the FBI went to them and asked them ‘What can you give us on Menendez?’ That is not what the FBI and the Department of Justice are supposed to be doing… To those who left me, who abandoned me in my darkest moment, I forgive you. To those who embraced me in my darkest moments, I love you. To those New Jerseyans who gave me the benefit of the doubt, I thank you… To those who were digging my political grave so they could jump into my seat, I know who you are, and I won’t forget you.”
The Battle of the Bobs concluded with the Cuban-American incumbent defeating the well-heeled pharma exec 54% to 48.2%.
As it stands now, Menendez is once again facing a federal investigation. Looking ahead to the future, Menendez would seemingly have to try to win re-election once more, so that he could ensure that he was the author of his own political legacy and inflict another defeat on the Democratic undertakers waiting in the back with their shovels ready. That legacy, building up a solid Latino base and making himself the champion of the Cuban voices in the state particularly, has been solidified as dynastic now that his son, Robert Jr., occupies a seat in the US House of Representatives. But if Menendez, 69-years-old, with his experienced hands on so many levers of power on the federal, state, and local level, wants to entertain any ideas of a retirement, then it would seem like an existential certainty that he would need to don his armor and charge in to the electoral fray at least one more time. This is not to say he would consider the idea of retirement, given that among politicians, he would still be considered a spry Baby Boomer.
However, if the Democratic Party seeks to be prepared for all potential contingencies, it would seem likely, or at least advisable, that plans were starting to congeal around the seemingly impossible: what if Senator Menendez does not, cannot, or will not run again?
It would seem likely that a hypothetical Menendez vacuum would precipitate machinations which are directly connected to the gubernatorial race next year, and with it, the Senate Presidency and Assembly Speakership. All of these phenomena would be taking place in an exclusively Democratic world, barring any Republican upsets in the days leading up to the 2025 election.
Seeking to cement a solid candidate who would appeal to the demographic makeup of the Democratic party, someone without the taint of scandal, and a generally reliable Democrat, Chairman LeRoy Jones would almost certainly look to advance Congresswoman Mikie Sherrill to Drumthwacket as his top choice. Doing so would present an alternative to Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop, who does not enjoy the widespread support of the Democratic state machine, and it would seem likely that Menendez himself would be supportive of a Governor Sherrill over the man he once backed when Fulop ran—and then bowed out from—the primary with Phil Murphy.
To ensure that all the respective regional power players get something in a theoretical post-Menendez New Jersey, the Bergen-Middlesex-Hudson nexus may want to ensure someone of their own occupied a position in the US Senate. Congressman Josh Gottheimer, who has not publicly expressed any interest in running for Senate, would, however, be a logical choice. Energetic, with broad name recognition, and the ability to raise huge amounts of campaign money, Gottheimer could potentially be an ideal choice. Gottheimer is no stranger to Washington, DC, as it is, and he might be well positioned to move his office down the hall from the House to the Senate. Bergen County is a massively influential piece of the New Jersey puzzle, having the largest population among counties, generally affluent, and this north-eastern corner of the state has become the site of a battleground against New York City’s proposed congestion fee for New Jersey commuters going in with the tunnels. Gottheimer and Robert Menendez, Jr., spoke together on the issue and Gov. Phil Murphy and Senator Menendez held a joint press conference on the matter. This arrangement could prove to be a valuable political alliance, or at the very least a combined pillar of political power, where Menendez World overlaps, and would continue to via Congressman Menendez, with a potential new power structure anchored on the western bank of the Hudson River.
A Sherrill governorship would be a win for Chairman Jones and allow him to keep Baraka from rocking the party boat too much outside of his Essex fiefdom while a potential north-eastern figure like Gottheimer as a US Senate candidate could win over the support Jones needs to put the party faithful behind Sherrill. A tidy trade off. With George Norcross apparently stepping away from politics, the southern part of the state will necessarily re-align itself, and this could be an opportunity for Jones to capitalize on. The Senate Presidency, currently held by Senator Nick Scutari, could be a theoretical concession for southern support. This exceptionally powerful position may be a welcome offering, considering former Senator Steve Sweeney was South Jersey’s strongest voice in the New Jersey legislature until his spectacular fall to Senator Ed Durr. The Assembly Speakership is in the hands of Central Jerseyan (is that a thing? Phil Murphy says so) Craig Coughlin of LD-19, but it still skews to the north. This other exceptional seat could be impacted as well if the political landscape should change.
Whether or not Senator Menendez is re-elected will fundamentally be an expression of the will of New Jersey voters. Democrats maintain a million-voter registration advantage over Republicans, but Republicans have demonstrated that that does not guarantee anything—Phil Murphy being all too aware. Menendez has proven himself a survivor and a keen political powerbroker. As challengers begin to step up, the likes of Republican candidate Dan Cruz and Democratic Roselle Park Mayor Joe Signorello stretching their legs for the race, Menendez will be sharpening his sword ahead of the action. The endeavor to unseat Menendez outright would be no easy task, and the Signorello campaign recently stated that Democratic donors are afraid of Menendez, should he discover who was donating to the Signorello cause. To that end, Signorello has started a drive for physical checks to be sent in for the amount of $199.99, thus avoiding public disclosure. “That way Uncle Bob will never know you’re sick of him being your senator,” Signorello said in a video.
Regardless of the probability of a Menendez fall, should this New Jersey giant come down, the impact will send tremors throughout the state and all the chess pieces which make up the intricate game that is New Jersey politics will be rattled. Some may bounce off the board entirely, others may roll into more advantageous positions, but in any event, the seismic effect that Menendez could exert cannot be overstated. If Democrats are wise, and this is often not the case, a contingency plan will be in place so that once the hypothetical dust settles, the pieces can be put back on the board and the game resumed with minimal disruption.