Sen. Bob Menendez surely knew that cries for his resignation would fill the air in the immediate aftermath of his Federal indictment on corruption charges and presumably was prepared for it.
It’s unlikely, though, that he foresaw how swiftly and broadly the demands for him to step aside flooded the political environment in New Jersey as well as Washington, D.C.
Gov. Phil Murphy led the state party leadership along with a majority of county chairs in a united call for the Senator’s resignation.
Tellingly, though, in a matter of days more than half his colleagues in the Senate joined the resignation movement, including Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, the second ranking Democrat in the Senate, and Michigan Sen. Gary Peters, chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee whose principal function is protecting incumbents in 2024.
It took a few more days before Sen. Cory Booker realized he couldn’t sit this one out and — in typical Booker fashion — issued a lengthy statement of praise for Menendez before suggesting a resignation was in order.
The White House has remained silent but there is little doubt that the occupants are voicing the same thing privately as the Senate leaders are doing publicly.
It is inconceivable that Senators of the stature of Durbin and Peters reached their conclusions about Menendez’ future without consulting the Administration first.
Menendez has continued to reject pleas for him to resign and his history suggests he will combine his stubbornness with a willingness to battle his party’s leadership and remain in office.
The pressure campaign, though, is of an intensity he hadn’t experienced in his 2017 indictment on corruption allegations or in his previous brushes with legal turmoil.
The reaction of party leaders reflects the breathtaking allegations leveled by the government prosecutors accusing Menendez and his wife of engaging in conspiracies to commit bribery by soliciting and accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash and gifts in return for the Senator exerting his influence on behalf of businessmen and advancing their interests.
Despite his history of fighting back and emerging victorious, can Menendez continue to stand his ground as the pressure mounts?
The photographs taken in a search of the Senator’s home of wads of cash stuffed in clothing and boxes along with gold bars were stunning in their impact.
His explanation that he accumulated the cash over many years from his personal savings account to meet emergencies and to protect his assets from potential confiscation by the Cuban government was cringe worthy and ridiculed in the media.
As more details, including thousands of text messages and emails, emerge, the government’s case will appear stronger and undermine new or continued support for him.
While those who’ve called for his resignation praised his service in Congress and used the “innocent until proven guilty” presumption, it is clear they want him out of the Senate and off the ballot.
Challenging him in the 2024 primary has already begun with Third District Rep. Andy Kim first out of the starting gate while speculation centers on Reps. Josh Gottheimer, Mikie Sherril and Donald Norcross as well as Murphy’s wife, Tammy.
Menendez, while continuing to rebuff resignation demands, has not directly addressed a potential re-election campaign, leaving his options open — at least publicly.
A resignation would ease the dilemma for the party and hand Murphy the decision to exercise his Constitutional responsibility to appoint a replacement.
He could choose a caretaker who would not seek a full term and serve until January 2025 or select one of the contenders to give him or her the advantage of campaigning as the incumbent Senator.
Either eventuality would avoid a potentially bitter primary campaign, but it would require Murphy and the party leadership to navigate a tricky political path, deal with egos and personal ambitions and reach accommodations to soothe the bruised feelings of competing factions.
At the same time, the risk of Menendez remaining in office and standing trial in the midst of a campaign is enormous, indeed.
A loss of his seat to a Republican opponent would be catastrophic for New Jersey Democrats, ending a half century of dominance in Senate contests and endangering party control of the Congress.
It would ripple as well in down ballot races and scramble the outlook for the 2025 gubernatorial election.
Menendez is not of a mind to retreat; he has not backed down in the past and has given no indication he’s inclined to do so now.
The company bugler has not sounded retreat, but he may want to consider warming up his lip.
Carl Golden is a senior contributing analyst with the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Stockton University.