Democrats who’ve worried that the trial of Sen. Robert Menendez would let Republicans flip a seat from blue to red may have found an emergency brake: New Jersey voters.
In a new Quinnipiac University poll, when asked what should happen “if Senator Menendez is forced to leave the Senate” as a result of his corruption trial, 68 percent of voters say the new Jersey Democrat should be replaced not by someone picked by Gov. Chris Christie (R) but by whomever is elected to replace Christie in November.
That’s widely expected to be Democrat Phil Murphy, a former Goldman Sachs banker and ambassador who, according to another Q-poll released this week, leads Christie’s lieutenant governor, Kim Guadagno, by 25 points. Christie, who in the wake of scandals has sunk below 20 percent approval, has proved to be an anchor around Guadagno; just 24 percent of respondents in the Q-poll want him to pick a new senator if Menendez leaves.
The poll’s results provide some relief to Democrats, who have bristled at questions about the scandal-plagued Menendez. The senator’s much-delayed trial — he was indicted in 2015, accused of using his office to secure favors for a wealthy donor — began this month, and a court schedule suggests it could wrap after Thanksgiving, if not earlier.
If convicted, nothing legally compels Menendez to give up his seat. But Republicans have tried to embarrass Democrats by asking whether they would call on him to quit, or vote to expel him, if a jury finds that he illegally provided favors in exchange for lavish vacations. (It would take 67 votes to do so, an action the Senate has not taken since the Civil War.) Guadagno, who national Republicans see as an almost-lost cause, has used the question to needle Murphy.
“If a jury finds him guilty, Senator Menendez owes it to his constituents to step down so that New Jersey can be represented with honor in the U.S. Senate,” she said this month.
Were Menendez to leave before Jan. 16, Christie would choose his replacement. While Christie has generally deflected questions about who might get the job, Republicans are confident that, as he did after the death of Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), he’d appoint a placeholder from the GOP, padding their majority until a special election could be held.
According to the poll, neither the timing nor the man making the decision makes that an attractive option. But Phil Kerpen, the president of the conservative group American Commitment, argued that the choice facing voters after a possible Menendez conviction would be more nuanced.
“Don’t put stock in ‘new governor’ number based on wording,” Kerpen said in a direct message. “ ‘Keep seat vacant or temp appointee until special election’ would look different.”
At the moment, not even New Jersey Republicans are warm to the idea of Christie picking a senator on his way out of office. Just 43 percent of them told Quinnipiac that they wanted him to replace Menendez; just 5 percent said that they’d favor Christie picking himself.