It’s probably time to grit our teeth and rally the troops. The Menendez race is getting tight, with polls in the low single-digits and occasionally within the margin of error. Losing a Senate seat in a reliably blue state would be devastating to the national party, would empower Trump, and more. I get it. But it’s still hard.
Now, maybe you’re a genuine Senator Menendez fan. If I squint I can see it. I agree with the Senator on a lot of issues. He’s at the forefront of opposing Trump. I’m proud that New Jersey has elected one of only two Senators on the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
But I have to squint. The Senator has also come to me to represent many of the things that are wrong with New Jersey politics. In particular, the various allegations (and yes, I understand he wasn’t convicted) speak to the ways money muddies the water here in New Jersey. According to the New York Times, he was the first sitting senator to be indicted for federal bribery in over a generation.
After the mistrial, he was quoted as saying “To those of you who were digging my political grave so you could jump into my seat, I know who you are and I won’t forget you.”
It is a chilling response, and as someone who has witnessed and faced occasional political retaliation in New Jersey, it fit all-too-nicely with an approach to politics that is virulently protective. You’re on the team or you’re off the team, and if someone decides you’re “off it” then be prepared for things to get ugly quickly.
And make no mistake, there is a cost to such politics for the Democratic Party, both on behalf of the candidate and on behalf of the party more generally. Menendez’s power and influence in the party was part of the reason that he faced no serious primary challenger. It was only when an unknown (and, in my estimation, unserious) challenger pulled close to 40% of the vote that the party began to take these issues seriously.
Now, the party is bearing the fruits of this party-building approach. A robust primary process could have led to a victory from a candidate that New Jersey voters were excited to support, an avenue for the bastions of progressives ignited by Trump to get involved in state politics, and an easy win for a national Democratic party that needs them. Or, it might have led to a genuine excitement about Menendez, a comeback story, and a chance for him to make the case Democrats should rally around him from within the party (rather than trying to garner excitement while a Republican is spending millions to dislodge him). Instead, we have a tight race, an uninspired New Jersey electorate, and the promise of an ugly, drag-em-down and knock-em-out election. That’s the cost of emphasizing loyalty and “insider politics” over open systems — it’s the risk that the Menendez race is a historic upset, and it’s the lost opportunity of everyone who will shy away from donating, volunteering, and yes, voting, because the party leadership rallied around Menendez at a time when the public didn’t.