What’s up with Menendez’s independent Senate bid? New Jersey Democrats share their thoughts

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(NEW YORK) — Facing 16 felony charges in federal court, New Jersey Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez launched a long-shot bid for reelection earlier this month as an independent, but he appears to have held no campaign events, raised almost no money through the first quarter of this year, reportedly has no paid staff and — by siphoning votes from the Democratic Party’s Senate nominee, Rep. Andy Kim, could hand a safe-blue seat to Republicans.

New Jersey Democrats ABC News spoke with are split over Menendez’s motivation.

Some — including Kim — speculate his independent campaign could help him fundraise to cover mounting legal costs. Others said they believe he could be seeking leverage with the Democratic Party. And some state Democrats can’t even agree on whether Menendez will go through with the race at all.

“It’s unfathomable to think I’m running for reelection for any reason other than to continue to uphold my oath of office to help and protect New Jerseyans,” Menendez said to ABC News in an emailed statement. “My candidacy is not, and never was, about leveraging my fellow Democrats.”

Many of those fellow Democrats disagree.

Kim, who won the New Jersey Democratic Senate primary earlier this month, said in an interview with ABC News that he assumed Menendez was running as an independent because he needed money to pay legal fees — incurred in his ongoing trial.

Menendez is charged with allegedly accepting cash, gold bars, luxury wristwatches and other perks from a New Jersey businessmen in exchange for official favors to benefit the businessmen and the governments of Egypt and Qatar.

He has pleaded not guilty and denied all wrongdoing.

“Depending on what happens with this trial, there could be a long appeals process or other things, so he may have to fundraise for a while,” Kim said.

Julie Roginsky, a veteran New Jersey Democratic political strategist, said she agreed.

“Bob Menendez is staring down millions and millions of dollars in legal fees” and, not being independently wealthy, he has to raise funds to cover them, Roginsky said.

Campaign funds can be used to cover some legal expenses under Federal Election Commission rules, according to former FEC Chairman Michael Toner.

In New Jersey, independent candidates can remove their names from the ballot up until Aug.16. Even if Menendez were to withdraw before that deadline, lobbyists and supporters who might be unwilling or unable to contribute to Menendez’s legal defense fund could donate until then to his campaign instead, Roginsky said.

Toner confirmed that a candidate cannot raise funds for a campaign once they fail to qualify for the ballot in an upcoming cycle. By qualifying for the ballot as an independent, Menendez can therefore continue to raise funds.

Two Democratic operatives close to New Jersey Democratic leadership have a different theory.

New Jersey is a reliably blue seat, and if Menendez pulls votes from Kim, it could imperil that standing — and potentially the U.S. Senate majority in Washington.

Democrats currently hold a narrow 51-seat majority in the Senate but are facing long odds to keep it, with Cook Political Report rating one currently Democratic seat as solid for Republicans and a three others as toss-ups.

Roginsky said she thinks Menendez would not want to cost Democrats the Senate majority.

Knowing that, Menendez could be looking for leverage to extract concessions in exchange for dropping out of the race before late summer, the operatives said. Concessions Menendez might seek, the operatives speculated, could range from financial support to even a pardon from President Joe Biden — as politically improbable as that might be — especially in an election year.

But for many of the state Democrats ABC News interviewed, the question is not why, but whether Menendez will go through with the reelection bid.

“He’s not running again,” said David Wildstein, the editor-in-chief of the New Jersey Globe and a longtime observer of New Jersey politics who says he has known Menendez for 35 years. “I just don’t believe that he’ll want to suffer the indignity of a defeat.”

Kim, for his part, said he isn’t listening to the speculation surrounding Menendez.

“My working assumption right now is that he will be on the ballot,” said Kim, who previously told ABC News “everyone knows Bob Menendez isn’t running for the people of New Jersey, he’s doing it for himself.”

And, Kim said, he will have the support of national Democrats in the event that Menendez does go through with the reelection bid.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer drew criticism for declining to immediately endorse Kim after his primary victory — and still has not done so. But Kim said that he spoke with Schumer after his victory last Tuesday and that they have been “talking more and more” since.

“I’ve certainly felt like we’re getting the support that we need,” Kim said. “And if there are things that we need going forward, I think that we’ll certainly be able to have that kind of coordination.”

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