Is Sen. Bob Menendez's refusal to resign intransigence or smart politics?

The indicted New Jersey Democrat is standing firm amidst calls to step down

Illustration of Senator Bob Menendez
Faced with calls for him to step down, Menendez has thus far remained defiant
(Image credit: Illustrated / Getty Images)

Though she no longer wields the speaker's gavel, nor sits on her party's House leadership team, California Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D) remains an undeniable locus of power and authority for congressional Democrats. And so, when asked by MSNBC's Jen Psaki whether Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) should resign from office following his latest spate of criminal indictments for alleged corruption, Pelosi's answer that "It probably would be a good idea" for the beleaguered lawmaker to step down carried an extra measure of significance for Democrats grappling with how to respond to their colleagues' legal jeopardy. A few hours after Pelosi's interview aired, Montana Sen. Jon Tester became the latest Democratic lawmaker to call for Menendez to resign, saying on Tuesday that although the New Jersey senator "deserves a fair trial like every other American," resigning is crucial for the "public’s faith in the U.S. Senate." Wisconsin Sen. Tammy Baldwin agreed, writing in a statement on Tuesday that the allegations against Menendez "compromise his ability to effectively represent his constituents." 

Faced with an undeniably growing trickle — but not yet a flood — of calls for him to step down, Menendez has thus far remained defiant, proclaiming his innocence in the alleged corruption charges, and steadfastly refusing to step down from the office he's held for nearly two decades. During a fiery press conference on Monday, Menendez asserted that "when all the facts are presented, not only will I be exonerated, but I still will be New Jersey’s senior senator."

As more of his colleagues join the chorus of lawmakers calling on him to resign, is Menendez's defiance an expression of pure obstinance, or is there a smart political calculation behind his refusal to step down? 

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What the commentators said

Calls for Menendez's resignation follow a "pretty clear trend of vulnerable 2024 Dems," and prominent progressives, according to Politico's Ursula Perano. And even though that group has slowly grown in recent days "those who have yet to [demand Menendez step down] are becoming more notable," Time reported, naming Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) as particularly conspicuous omissions. 

Noting that Menendez had "roughly more than a dozen supporters and staffers lined up behind him" during his Monday press conference, Politico reported that it was ultimately "unclear who they all were" — a marked change from his 2015 indictment, when the senator "quickly had top Democrats lined up to support him." And although his defiance is "characteristic," his continued refusal to resign "plays a practical purpose: To raise money for his legal defense."

Menendez may also be hoping the past will serve as prologue when it comes to this latest indictment, as it's "often the case that those who resist public pressure to resign when a scandal breaks are later vindicated," Rutgers University political history professor David Greenberg told The New York Times — particularly, the Times pointed out, as Menendez himself has "previously avoided conviction on federal bribery charges."

There's been an "aura of New Jersey’s ultimate political survivor" around the senator since he defeated his 2015 indictment with a mistrial in 2017, Politico said, adding that Menendez is now "convinced of his own staying power" — and bolstered by millions of dollars already sitting in his campaign war chest. 

What next?

While Menendez has refused to step down, he has also not confirmed whether he will run for reelection when his term is up next year. If he does, he will face at least one serious primary challenge. New Jersey Democratic Rep. Andy Kim has already launched his campaign to replace Menendez, claiming on X, formerly Twitter, that it wasn't "something I expected to do, but NJ deserves better. We cannot jeopardize the Senate or compromise our integrity."

While Democrats will likely retain Menendez's seat in solidly blue New Jersey, "this is the most vulnerable that Menendez has been politically, even when he’s faced other charges in the past" Cook Political Report Senate Editor Jessica Taylor told The Wall Street Journal

Menendez's refusal to stop down presents "a real problem for Democrats," New Jersey Republican Party spokeswoman Alexandra Wilkes told The New York Times. This is not what you want to have be the top story on every single news station, every single night."

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