The indictment of Sen. Bob Menendez has unleashed a season of wild maneuvering in New Jersey politics with ambitious Democrats angling for his seat and former President Donald Trump discussing a run for it with one of his congressional allies.
Third-term Rep. Andy Kim (D-N.J.) was the first surprise contender. But more are expected to follow soon. Confidantes of Tammy Murphy, the wife of Gov. Phil Murphy, have begun reaching out to staff and consultants as she moves closer to a run, according to two people familiar with the conversations. Rep. Donald Norcross (D-N.J.), has also refused to rule out a bid.
And on the Republican side, Rep. Jeff Van Drew — a Democrat not too long ago — is contemplating a bid and said he has talked to Trump about it.
“A free for all,” is how longtime Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.) summed it up.
In a state where politics is defined by its nasty, often seedy, underside, the cycle is shaping up to be particularly volatile. And it’s happening fast.
Kim, for one, said in an interview that he felt compelled to move quickly after the Menendez news and he’s already benefited from it. In his first week, he raised nearly $1 million, according to a campaign spokesperson. But he did not seek approval from the state Democratic Party before his sudden launch, which was considered taboo by some in the state.
“I will say that anyone in the delegation that wants to do this will have to take the risk that I am, which is that I am not able to run for reelection in the House,” Kim said. “I’m putting my entire career on the line.”
But it’s not just the Senate race. An even nastier head-to-head contest may be taking place back in Trenton. The governor’s race is open in 2025 and two prominent Democrats have begun inching toward that office, even as Menendez’s troubles open up the possibility of a Senate seat.
Democratic Reps. Mikie Sherrill and Josh Gottheimer are both positioning themselves for the 2025 governor’s contest, according to multiple people familiar with each member’s deliberations. Neither is planning to change course and run for Senate.
All told, nearly half of the state’s 12-members of Congress are eyeing statewide runs in the next two years. It’s portending some showdowns between a number of remarkable protagonists: An infamously vengeful senator enmeshed in corruption charges, a high-wattage political spouse, a party-switching Trump ally and the brother of another notorious New Jersey boss, George Norcross.
Menendez, a 30-year Capitol Hill veteran, has denied the allegations of bribery and corruption and has vowed to fight them. He said on Wednesday that he will announce any reelection plans “when the time comes” but that he would not “jeopardize any seat in New Jersey.”
But the fall-out has even ensnared the senator’s son, Rep. Rob Menendez, who is now facing a serious primary challenge from Hoboken Mayor Ravi Bhalla. (Menendez declined to comment on the primary when asked about it last week.)
The composition of the state’s House delegation seems likely to change dramatically beyond the younger Menendez’s seat.
Sherill and Gottheimer are both signaling that they will keep their sights set on Trenton, setting them up for a head-to-head clash. And while Democrats close to Gottheimer — who has $15.1 million banked as of this June — expect him to fight to keep his seat through 2024, it’s less clear if Sherrill will make the same decision.
Sherrill will have to choose by the spring filing deadline whether to seek reelection in 2024 or retire in preparation for a statewide run in 2025. (She had $1.2 million in the bank as of June, though neither she nor Gottheimer can transfer those funds directly into a state account to use for a governor bid.)
If Sherrill decides to leave, it would mean Democrats need to defend an open seat in the expensive New York City media market, though it became far more difficult for Republicans in the last redistricting. Gottheimer’s seat, should it open up, was also once a battleground and could possibly be vulnerable again in a tough Democratic year.
One House member who doesn’t appear to be going anywhere is Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.). He said in an interview that his focus was on taking back the House majority and re-securing the chairmanship of the Energy and Commerce committee. “I’m flattered by the suggestions,” he added, of those floating him for a run.
Van Drew, a conservative Democrat-turned-Republican, by contrast, is openly flirting with a run for the Senate. He said a decision isn’t coming soon but he speaks to the former president weekly and said Trump would back him should he choose to go statewide.
“He wants me to do what’s best for the state and also best for me,” Van Drew said. “He’s always been supportive of me since the day I changed over five years ago.”
Van Drew could pose a challenge for an eventual Democratic nominee, with his ability to appeal to conservative Democratic voters in the southern end of the state. He won his district as both a Democrat and a Republican. But his colleagues downplayed the odds of him picking up crossover voters.
“How do you say, ‘Hell no,’” said Norcross, his downstate colleague, when asked if Van Drew might still be popular with Democrats.
Norcross, the brother of New Jersey powerbroker George Norcross, declined to rule out a run, but noted that his focus was on his work in Congress.
“Having the state well represented in the halls of government, whether it’s at the state or federal level, has always been a consideration,” he said. “We’ll take one day at a time.”
In a state where politics is defined by its nasty underside, next cycle is shaping up to be particularly volatile.