Menendez Snubs Overtures by Dem Opponent for Unity After Divisive Primary

Opponent's progressive, anti-corruption message garnered the support of nearly 40 percent of the Democratic electorate

Sen. Bob Menendez / Getty Images

Sen. Bob Menendez, fresh off having won a narrow victory in the New Jersey Democratic primary, has ignored overtures by his defeated opponent to unite the party ahead of the general election in November.

Menendez, a longtime fixture in New Jersey politics who entered the United State Senate in 2006, delivered a lackluster performance Tuesday against Lisa McCormick, a relatively unknown political newcomer.

McCormick ran a progressive-style insurgency campaign highlighting her support for Medicare-for-all, a $15 minimum wage, and free college tuition in an effort to create a contrast between herself and Menendez, who detractors claim is too closely aligned with the interests of Wall Street. She also castigated Menendez as "corrupt and ineffectual," repeatedly citing the ethics controversies swirling around the senator for years.

McCormick's progressive, anti-corruption message seemed to take root on election day as she garnered the support of nearly 40 percent of the Democratic electorate. The results were particularly impressive considering Menendez spent $3.6 million on the primary, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, while McCormick failed to raise the $5,000 necessarily to meet the fundraising disclosure threshold set by the Federal Elections Commission.

It seems, however, the senator does not view bridging the partisan divide exposed by McCormick's candidacy as a top priority.

James Devine, McCormick's partner and campaign manager, told the Washington Free Beacon their campaign attempted to reach out to Menendez after the primary but their overtures were not returned.

"It's Thursday and we haven't heard from him," Devine said. "We reached out but his campaign has been unresponsive."

The Menendez campaign did not return requests for comment on this story.

Matthew Hale, an associate professor of political science and public affairs at Seton Hall University, told the Free Beacon that if the senator was unresponsive to McCormick it was likely the consequence of lingering feelings brought to the surface by the tone of her campaign.

"Anytime you're in a primary where one candidate has done everything they can to eviscerate the other it's more difficult to have a come together Kumbaya moment afterward," Hale said. "She went after him on the corruption issue as hard as any Republican would."

Hale also expressed there were policy factors at play that pushed Menendez to victory on Tuesday.

"New Jersey is a Democratic state," Hale said. "It’s not necessarily a progressive state, the Democrats in New Jersey tend to be more centrist."

Menendez's political stances might be the reason why his legal troubles didn't seem to weigh heavily on New Jersey's political leaders when deciding to back him for another term in the nation's capital over the more progressive McCormick.

In 2015, the senator was indicted by the Department of Justice along with one of his major political contributors on charges related to "conspiracy, bribery, and honest services fraud." Prosecutors alleged Menendez was bribed by Dr. Salomon Melgen with private jet flights and various other gifts in exchange for government favors. The case went to court but ended in a mistrial in November 2017, after jurors were unable to form a unanimous verdict.

Only hours after the mistrial was declared, Sen. Cory Booker and Gov. Phil Murphy, along with a majority of New Jersey's Democratic elected officials, endorsed Menendez for re-election. The endorsements came even though the Justice Department announced it planned to retry the case, a decision it was forced to abandon after a federal judge damaged the prosecution's argument by acquitting Menedez and Melgen on seven of the 18 counts of corruption and bribery.

Although he escaped criminal conviction Menendez was not totally vindicated, as the Senate Ethics Committee found he "knowingly accepted gifts of significant value" and "failed to publicly disclose" them as required by law. As punishment, the committee "severely admonished" the New Jersey Democrat and ordered him to "repay the fair market value of all impermissible gifts."

Devine said McCormick's campaign was a success because it cast light on Menendez's voting record and his alleged ethical lapses.

"We made note that he's been in Congress for 25 years and made note of his ethical record," Devine said. "That spoke for itself, clearly the fact that we got 40 percent of the vote against someone who is a known quantity speaks to the senator's weakness."

The political operative indicated frustration with the national Democratic Party for not providing voters with a sufficient alternative to the current state of political affairs.

"Democrats are energized right now and looking for a change," Devine said. "I'm sorry to say the Democratic Party's political establishment is not up for the job."

Devine also bemoaned the party's proclivity of preaching about a coming "blue wave" without investing in the coalition building necessary to ensure it appealed to enough voters to retake the majorities in Congress.

"If anyone thinks there is going to be a blue wave this year, they don’t understand what it takes," he added.

Menendez's underwhelming performance has stirred concerns among national Democrats that they will have to spend more money this election cycle than originally anticipated to keep New Jersey in their column. Such fears are compounded by the fact that Menendez faces a credible and well-financed general election opponent in Bob Hugin, the Republican nominee.

Hugin, a businessman and former marine, has signaled that he's committed to running an aggressive challenge to Menendez by investing over $7 million of his own money into the race. Prior to the results of the primary, Hugin's campaign had Menendez in its sight, launching a coordinated $2 million ad buy against the senator.

Recent polling, conducted by Fairleigh Dickinson University, showed the two men locked in a close race. With nearly half of the voters undecided, Menendez held a single digit advantage well within the margin of error. An especially troubling sign for the senator was that only 53 percent of registered Democrats expressed support for his re-election effort.

The poll also found that only 33 percent of Garden State voters approved of the job Menedez was doing on their behalf in Washington, D.C., mirroring similar results from an April survey conducted by the Morning Consult.

Michael Starr Hopkins, an attorney and staffer for the Obama and Clinton presidential campaigns, told the Free Beacon that voters weren't happy with the "status quo."

"In this Trump age voters aren't going to put up with the status quo," Hopkins said. "I heard from a lot of people who wanted someone other than Menendez as their nominee."

Hopkins made an initial run against Menendez in the Democratic primary before departing the race in March citing the fundraising challenges posed by attempting to unseat an entrenched figure in the Democratic establishment.

He asserted the Democratic Party should be apprehensive about the lack of enthusiasm New Jersey's voters seem to have for their senator. 

"I think one of the big worries is that Democrats will stay home this election cycle," Hopkins stated. "This could have consequential effects not just for the Senate campaign but for down-ballot New Jersey races as well."

Hopkins also conveyed disappointment with the state's political leadership for preventing an "open and honest conversation" from taking place within the Democratic primary about Menendez's deficiencies as a candidate.

"We inside the party needed to have an open and honest conversation about the ethical accusations surrounding Menendez," Hopkins said. "Voters didn't really have the opportunity to litigate these issue in the Democratic primary because the party's leadership stepped in to protect the senator. It's a decision that could come back to haunt them in November."

The sentiment was echoed by Devine who stated the party couldn't unify "if Bob Menendez doesn't reach out" for McCormick's support and "the support of the nearly 158,000 Democrats that voted for her."

"He's going to need unity and a unified party behind him if he wants to win in November," Devine added.