When Democratic New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez was indicted on bribery charges by federal authorities on Friday—charges that included the allegation that he’d accepted actual bars of gold in exchange for pressuring prosecutors to go easy on an individual accused of bank fraud—the response from his party’s national leaders was kind of a sluggish Ah, crap. (Menendez has categorically denied that he has committed any crimes.)
This was an understandable reaction. Menendez is a machine politician who has been in Congress since 1993 and beat similar corruption allegations in 2017 before winning reelection in 2018. Pressure him to resign and he might refuse, creating a mess in the 2024 primary that he might well emerge from as a winner if no other candidate consolidated the field. (As 2018 showed, name recognition and allies within a state party can go a long way.) And while New Jersey is a blue state, a Democratic candidate who’s running post–second indictment could conceivably lose a general-election race to a Republican running on a platform of, let’s say, not having been indicted twice for corruption. (Also: Menendez, in the scenario where party leaders have basically called him a crook, might not feel compelled to vote the way they ask him to, which would be a problem in a 50-50 Senate.)
On the other hand, not pressuring Menendez to resign risks creating the impression that the Democratic Party condones corruption, which is not the image it wants to project heading into an election that will, at the national level, be defined by the question of whether Donald Trump is too corrupt to be president. It would also still result in Menendez running as the party’s nominee in 2024 while under indictment (or on trial). What would be great for Democratic leaders is if Menendez would decide to throw in the towel on his own, but he said at a Monday press conference that he’s not going anywhere.
Tricky stuff! But less tricky if you’re a Democratic senator from a swing state (or red state), where there’s an incentive to find issues on which you can show that’s you’re independent-minded. The first senator to say Mendendez should resign, on Friday afternoon, was Pennsylvania Sen. John Fetterman, whose political profile combines relatively mainstream liberal positions with a “maverick”-styled manner of casual dress and personal bluntness. (Last week, Fetterman was criticized by a number of his colleagues for inspiring Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to change the chamber’s dress code so that he can preside over it in shorts.) Fetterman was followed on Monday by Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown—up for reelection in a red state in 2024—and Vermont Sen. Peter Welch (Vermont is the most maverick state), Wisconsin Sen. Tammy Baldwin (Wisconsin is possibly the most 50-50 state in the country), and Montana Sen. Jon Tester (Montana is redder than, uh, the summer dust that cowboys … dust … off their boots).
From there, the dam has cracked open. As of Tuesday afternoon, the “should resign” caucus was up to 16 Dems, including more senior figures like Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar. Most prominently, it includes New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, who stood by his home state colleague in 2018 after the last set of corruption charges. (New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy was also early to call for Menendez to step down; he and Booker might not want that characteristic New Jersey indictment smell lingering on them if they run for higher office, again in Booker’s case.) In sum, Fetterman got his wish:
Not calling on Menendez to resign: The Senate’s Republicans, who would love to run someone against Mr. Bribery Pants in 2024 and who, because of Trump, are now obligated to characterize corruption prosecutions as deep state interventions in the people’s business. (To be clear, at this point Menendez is only Mr. Alleged Bribery Pants.) Here’s Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who is to using periods in his tweets as Fetterman is to wearing a suit:
Getting a free shot at a presidential-year Senate flip? Now that’s a “golden” political opportunity! (Sorry—we’ll be calling for our own resignation shortly.) Anyway, my two cents is that if Democrats really want Robert Menendez to resign, they should tell him that if he does, they’ll give him $480,000 in cash that he can hide in his clothes. Maybe he has a sense of humor!