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Three Ways the Menendez Mess Could Ensnare the Democratic Party

When Sen. Bob Menendez’s (D-N.J.) public corruption and bribery trial began Wednesday, Republicans were quick to suggest the affair would lead to consequences for the Democratic Party.

GOP-aligned groups hammered Democratic lawmakers for failing to distance themselves from the New Jersey senator or urge him to resign. Menendez remains intent on running for re-election in 2018, despite the more than a dozen charges brought against him as part of the corruption scandal — and, at least so far, his party seems unwilling to denounce him.

"The Democratic Party was seen as the epitome of the corrupt, failed status quo in 2016," the GOP-aligned America Rising PAC Executive Director Alexandra Smith said in a statement Wednesday. "Senator Menendez's corruption trial will only solidify that narrative as voters look forward to the 2018 midterms."

On the day his trial began, Menendez faced reporters and affirmed his belief he is innocent.

"I started my public career fighting corruption — that's how I started — and I have always acted in accordance with the law," he said.

"And I believe when all the facts are known, I will be vindicated," Menendez continued, adding: "not once have I dishonored my public office."

The allegations against him, however, claim that the New Jersey Democrat did more than merely dishonor his public office. Menendez is accused of wielding his political power in an attempt to prevent Dr. Salomon Melgen, a longtime friend, donor and ophthalmologist, from paying $8 million he owed the Department of Health and Human Services. The fines were levied against Melgen for engaging in illegal billing practices that earned the doctor 67 felony-count convictions.

The federal government alleges the Democratic senator again broke the law when he pocketed hundreds of thousands of dollars in re-election contributions, using thousands of dollars to fund personal trips. Menendez later reimbursed Melgen for part of the money the doctor spent funding his trips. The New Jersey Democrat now faces more than a dozen corruption and bribery charges.

"[Menendez] didn't get to enjoy spoils of wealth for nothing. He paid for it by using the power of his public office to advance the political interests of [Melgen]," prosecutor Peter Koski said in his opening statement Wednesday. "Menendez went to bat for Doctor Melgen to the highest levels of our federal government for many years … because Doctor Melgen gave Sen. Menendez access to a life that reads like a travel brochure for the rich and famous. This is what bribery looks like."

"This case is about a corrupt political official who sold his senate office for a life of luxury he could not afford," Koski added.

America Rising's Smith sent out an email Wednesday detailing the "three ways in which the Menendez trial is a ticking time bomb for Democrats." Noting that only 12 sitting senators have ever been indicted in U.S. history, the group said Menendez "adds to this ignominious legacy when his felony corruption and bribery trial starts in Newark, adding that he "has the most on the line during his corruption trial, but the stakes are also high for the Democratic Party."

The fact that Menendez will be sitting in a Newark courtroom instead of voting on the busy Senate floor following the August recess is the first way in which the Menendez trial could harm the Democratic Party, America Rising noted.

"With the partisan margins in the Senate razor-thin, Minority Leader Chuck Schumer will need every vote he can get," Smith said. "As the Associated Press pointed out, had Menendez been absent from this summer's critical health care vote, the Republicans might have succeeded. Yet, after Judge William Walls' stinging rebuke, Senator Menendez will not be able to alter the federal court system's schedule for his own convenience in attending his Senate votes. That means that Senator Menendez will be an empty desk for Senate Democrats this fall."

America Rising predicts Menendez will leave New Jersey "shortchanged" at potentially "critical moments."

The GOP-aligned group also noted that "defending a felon in the Senate" would not bode well for Menendez's Democratic colleagues, should he be convicted at the trial's conclusion.

"In 2008, then-Senator Ted Stevens was convicted of multiple felonies. Following his felony conviction, Barack Obama called on Stevens to 'step down' from the Senate. Harry Reid added that 'a convicted felon is not going to be able to serve in the United States Senate,'" Smith noted. "In a couple of months, Senate Democrats could soon face their own admonitions."

"If Senator Menendez is convicted before January, Senate Democrats will be forced to choose between standing up for a felon serving in the United States Senate or relinquishing a Senate seat to someone appointed by Republican Governor Chris Christie," Smith continued. "Every single Senate Democrat will need to state publicly where they stand: with the desperate partisanship of Chuck Schumer or with the rule of law."

The Democratic Party could also be deeply harmed by siding with Menendez because of the political donations he has given to his colleagues.

"Even after his indictment, Senator Menendez has remained a deeply influential figure within the Democratic Party. His generous campaign donations to his colleagues clearly demonstrate his deeply entrenched leadership within the party," Smith said.

America Rising noted that this year alone, Menendez has donated to six Senate colleagues, including $5,000 given to Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), $10,000 to Jon Tester (D-Mont.), $10,000 to Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), $10,000 to Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), $5,000 to Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), and $10,000 to Tim Kaine (D-Va.).

"If Sen. Menendez is convicted, those Democrats should face scrutiny and many awkward questions from voters and reporters," Smith said.

Some Democrats have attempted to distance themselves from Menendez. When asked by CNN reporter Manu Raju whether he would "stand by" Menendez should he be convicted, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) struggled to respond.

"Look, Senator Menendez is issuing a spirited defense," Schumer said. "We all believe in the presumption of innocence in this country. And Senator Menendez is fighting very hard. And we respect that greatly."

But Schumer refused to take one side or another, and many Democrats have been leery of expressing outright disapproval or condemnation for Menendez.

On Wednesday, the Republican National Committee (RNC) also blasted Senate Democrats for being "unwilling to publicly say if Senator Menendez should be forced to resign or be expelled from the Senate if he is found guilty."

"The last time a sitting senator was convicted of a felony, members of both parties called for the individual to resign immediately, with then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) saying "a convicted felon is not going to be able to serve in the United States Senate," the RNC noted on its website.

The day before the trial began, the RNC Chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel said in a statement, "Democratic Senator Robert Menendez's public corruption trial is a big deal, but it has been vastly underreported in the media. This case is ripe with corruption and chock full of lies involving lavish resorts, nearly one million dollars in gifts, and political favors leveraged to benefit a wealthy donor who has already been convicted of defrauding Medicare of more than $90 million."

"A sitting U.S. Senator involved in a federal bribery trial and facing 14 corruption-related counts is no small potatoes," McDaniel added. "If convicted, Senate Democrats need to immediately call for his resignation."

(photo credit, photo credit, article image: Glyn Lowe, Flickr)