TRENTON, N.J. — The start of Democratic U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez’s federal corruption trial Wednesday has hung a question mark on the future of his Senate seat, and national Republicans have already begun pushing for his ouster if he’s convicted.
The Republican National Committee rolled out a campaign this week aimed at pressuring Democratic senators to call on Menendez to step down if he’s convicted.
The campaign includes a Snapchat filter available near the courthouse that has a banner saying “Bye Bye Bob Menendez” as well as an airplane, an apparent reference to what prosecutors say was the senator’s acceptance of lavish trips to the Caribbean and Paris in return for helping Florida eye doctor Salomon Melgen with lobbying.
Menendez denies any wrongdoing and said outside the courthouse Wednesday that he never “dishonored” his public office.
The RNC also released a web video that shows then-U.S. Sen. Barack Obama calling for Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska to resign after he was convicted of corruption in 2008. “Why would it be any different now?” the video asks.
Stevens refused to step down and lost a re-election bid a month after his conviction. His conviction was later thrown out, and he died in a 2010 plane crash.
Expulsion from the Senate isn’t guaranteed if the two-term senator from New Jersey is convicted. Two-thirds of senators would need to vote him out of the upper chamber, meaning that 15 Democratic lawmakers would have to side with the 52-seat Republican majority.
Menendez is up for re-election next year. If he leaves the Senate before Gov. Chris Christie leaves office Jan. 16, the Republican governor would pick a successor.
Christie has said that Menendez is entitled to the presumption of innocence. He has declined to speculate on who he might appoint if he gets the opportunity, though it’s widely assumed he would pick a Republican.
That could prove crucial in a closely divided Senate where President Donald Trump has struggled to have his priorities passed, including repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act.
Republicans would use a potential conviction in ads against Democrats, but ultimately, there’s little desire among Democrats to give the GOP a chance for a pickup because of Trump agenda items at stake, said University of Virginia Center for Politics director Larry Sabato.
“The substance of it is elevated above the tawdry politics,” he said.
The expected eight-week trial could also force Menendez to choose between appearing in court and being in Washington for votes. Menendez said he plans to be at the trial daily but will decide whether to return to Washington based on the issue and on whether his vote could make a difference. Judge William Walls declined his request to postpone the trial on days when important votes were planned.
Democrats in New Jersey have stood behind Menendez since the indictment. Democratic gubernatorial candidate Phil Murphy declined to say Wednesday whether senators convicted of crimes should resign, but he pointed out that he has long stood by Menendez. He has touted Menendez’s endorsement in this year’s campaign to succeed Christie, who is term limited.
Democratic Sen. Cory Booker has also defended Menendez and was in court to support him on Wednesday.
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