Menendez’s son faces tough primary in shadow of embattled father

Menendez’s son faces tough primary in shadow of embattled father

Embattled Sen. Bob Menendez’s (D-N.J.) son is running for his political life as his scandal-plagued father threatens to drag him down in his bid for reelection.

Rep. Rob Menendez (D-N.J.) is running for another term representing New Jersey’s 8th Congressional District, a solidly liberal area where the winner of the primary will almost certainly win the general election in November.

But the younger Menendez is facing a formidable primary challenge Tuesday from Hoboken Mayor Ravi Bhalla, which comes amid growing scrutiny over the congressman’s relationship with his father, who has been charged with bribery.

“The entanglements of Sen. Menendez are the reason why this is even a race in the first place,” said New Jersey-based Democratic strategist Henry de Koninck. “That is the elephant in the room, and the race could very much play out as a referendum on Sen. Menendez, which would obviously make for an electoral challenge for the congressman.”

Rob Menendez was first elected to represent the district in 2022 after longtime incumbent Rep. Albio Sires (D-N.J.) announced he would not seek reelection. He was serving at the time as the commissioner of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, having been appointed by Gov. Phil Murphy (D), and quickly picked up endorsements from most major Democrats in the state, including the governor and top state Legislature leaders.

Menendez faced minimal opposition in the Democratic primary and easily won the general election.

But he is facing a much tougher challenge this time while running in the shadow of his father’s ongoing criminal trial on charges of bribery, obstruction of justice and other counts. Prosecutors allege that the senator and his wife accepted bribes in exchange for various favors for three businessmen and for acting as an agent of the Egyptian government, along with other offenses.

The senator and his wife have pleaded not guilty to all charges.

The younger Menendez is not involved in the allegations facing his father, but the case has still caused significant electoral difficulties for him over allegations his detractors have made that nepotism is the reason he currently holds his seat.

Bhalla has made those allegations a focal point of his campaign.

“This is a gentleman who was handpicked by party bosses to be your next congressman,” Bhalla said about Menendez in a debate they participated in last week. “Do you want somebody who was handpicked by party bosses, or do you want someone who’s been in the district, has earned accomplishments and who’s has worked for the people honestly through his career? That’s me.”

Menendez has emphasized his connections to the district, being a lifelong resident of the area, and the work he has done in Congress to serve his constituents in response.

“I believe when you look at our track record of delivering for this district, you will agree that we’ve earned another two years in Congress,” he said during the debate, referencing his office’s constituent services and millions in funding provided to the district for infrastructure projects.

While the candidates do differ somewhat on certain policy issues, such as the war between Israel and Hamas and health care, strategists said the race seems to hinge more on questions of ethics and qualifications to serve the district.

“This is a referendum on Bob Menendez and to what extent his son is going to be held responsible for his alleged transgressions,” de Koninck said.

“Both the congressman and Bhalla have done what they can to establish their progressive bona fides and establish that record,” but that’s not what will determine the outcome, he continued.

Polling has been limited in the race, but signs indicate it could go either way.

While one poll from the winter associated with Menendez’s campaign showed the incumbent ahead by more than 20 points, another associated with Bhalla’s campaign placed him up just 3 points. And an April poll from a super PAC supporting Bhalla showed the mayor ahead by 5, though almost a third were undecided.

Both candidates have raised significant totals to fund their campaigns, with Bhalla slightly outraising Menendez with $2 million to the incumbent’s more than $1.6 million.

The Hill has reached out to the Menendez and Bhalla campaigns for comment.

One other key factor that may at least contribute to the race being a toss-up is a new ballot design rolling out for use in New Jersey’s Democratic primaries for the first time in decades. After a federal judge struck down the longtime ballot design that gave candidates who received party leaders’ endorsements preferential placement on the ballot, candidates are now grouped together only by the office they are running for.

That could be a boon for Bhalla, with Menendez having secured most key endorsements from state Democrats who have backed candidates in the contest. That includes the county parties for Essex, Hudson and Union counties, the ones that make up the district.

The governor also campaigned with the congressman over the weekend.

But the impacts of ballots without the “county line” could be difficult to predict.

Democratic strategist Brendan Gill noted that candidates can still run with ballot slogans making clear they have the support of party leaders, and elected leaders still have the ability to “move large blocks of votes” for a candidate they support.

“This is an interesting district, because it’s hard to tell, based on the polling, because you have the last vestiges of, in certain parts of this district, institutional machine organizations,” he said.

“There’s parts of this district that, even without lines, are still led by party leaders that have very strong followings and very strong organizations,” Gill said.

The primary also features a third candidate: businessman Kyle Jasey, the son of a former state assemblywoman.

Jasey told The Hill that he believes the controversy around Sen. Menendez will be the defining issue in the race, though some policy issues like the Israel-Hamas war will play a factor.

But Jasey also noted some controversy surrounding Bhalla over his work as an attorney and tenure as mayor that has arisen during the race.

The New Jersey Supreme Court censured Bhalla in 2018 over unethical conduct for not setting aside money for a former employee’s retirement account. And this year, a former Hoboken official filed a lawsuit against Bhalla alleging that as mayor he sought to have an approval for one cannabis dispensary location voided in favor of another location owned by another mayor’s wife in exchange for legal work.

Menendez has seized on the accusations and called on Bhalla to release all communications related to the situation, while Bhalla has called the lawsuit “pure utter nonsense” and questioned the credibility of the former official who filed.

“I think it’s exactly the kind of thing that people hate about politics here and that they’re sick of,” Jasey said, regarding the allegations against Bhalla.

Democratic strategist Laura Matos said the decision will ultimately be made on whom constituents believe will serve them the best. As the only congressional district in New Jersey that is majority Hispanic and only one that has a Hispanic House member, performing well with this demographic is essential for the candidates.

In the April poll, Bhalla had a narrow lead with this group, with 31 percent support to Menendez’s 27 percent and Jasey’s 10 percent.

“It is kind of the dawn of a new day for Democrats in New Jersey,” Matos said. “And what’s changed is the way the ballot looks, but it’s still required for candidates to put in the work and talk to constituents, develop relationships in the communities that they seek to represent and educate the voters and work to earn the votes of those that they seek to represent.”

Copyright 2024 Nexstar Media, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

For the latest news, weather, sports, and streaming video, head to The Hill.