Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D., Md.) conceded Sunday that his colleague Sen. Robert Menendez (D., N.J.) has had to "litigate" legal and ethical accusations through his campaign.
Speaking with Chuck Todd on NBC’s "Meet the Press," Van Hollen tried to suggest that the New Jersey Senate seat, now rated a "toss-up," was only at risk because Republican challenger Bob Hugin outspent Menendez.
Todd asked, "It’s not because of Menendez’s legal problems?" Van Hollen replied, "Well there’s no doubt that Bob Menendez has had that legal issue, and he’s had to litigate throughout the campaign."
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Menendez underwent an extensive trial and federal investigation on account of serious charges of corruption. Menendez stood accused of accepting lavish gifts and trips from a friend and using his Senate powers in exchange. Among other things, Menendez is accused of intervening with US Customs and Border Protection on his friend’s behalf, fighting with the State Department to protect his business interests, and pressuring Health and Human Services to resolve a $9 million dispute affecting his medical practice.
Menendez’s conduct prompted the Senate Ethics Committee to write him a highly critical letter, concluding he had "violated Senate Rules, federal law, and applicable standards of conduct." The letter, signed by Sen. Chris Coons (D., Del.), Brian Schatz (D., Hawaii) and others, said in part:
The Committee has found that over a six-year period you knowingly and repeatedly accepted gifts of significant value from Dr. Melgen without obtaining required Committee approval, and that you failed to publicly disclose certain gifts as required by Senate Rule and federal law. Additionally, while accepting these gifts, you used your position as a Member of the Senate to advance Dr. Melgen's personal and business interests.
The criminal trial against Menendez ended in a hung jury. As the Senate letter explained, however, that "neither enforces nor supplants the Senate's rules or standards of conduct, and the Committee's action stands independent from that result."
The Star-Ledger Editorial Board, which endorsed Menendez, called him "awful" and "slippery," but suggested New Jersey voters should support whichever candidate opposes the president. "The central issue in this race is Donald Trump," it argued.
Van Hollen suggested that the legal troubles had hindered Menendez, but also pointed the finger at Hugin’s campaign costs. "The only reason Hugin is competitive," Van Hollen suggested, is his spending. Hugin has provided $36 million of the $39 million spent by his campaign to date.
Though public polling continues to show Mendendez maintaining a comfortable lead, reports of troubling internal Democrat polls abound. Van Hollen predicted Menendez would hang on to win, but other Democrats are less certain. One report from Politico Saturday reported alarm within the Menendez camp:
Now, with three days until the election, Menendez is swinging wildly at his opponent, linking him to President Donald Trump, former Republican Gov. Chris Christie and even suggesting — falsely and without evidence — that Hugin was fired under questionable circumstances by investment bank JPMorgan nearly two decades ago.
One Democrat operative described the numbers as "brutal." Another said, "I think there’s a significant chance he could lose." New Jersey has nearly a million more registered Democrats than Republicans.