One of the biggest wild cards in the 2018 battle for the U.S. Senate may not be so wild after all. New Jersey Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez’s federal corruption trial ended in a hung jury last week. That leaves him free to run for reelection in 2018. Menendez could be retried, but many legal experts believe that a conviction is unlikely. Without that conviction, and absent major action following a Senate ethics investigation, Menendez is a clear favorite in 2018.
The case against an easy Menendez victory in the general election1 comes down to his current popularity — or lack thereof. An October Quinnipiac University survey put his approval rating at just 31 percent among New Jersey voters; 49 percent disapproved. Whether or not Menendez remains this unpopular following the lack of a conviction remains unclear. But any senator who has an approval rating of 31 percent should be in some danger of losing.
Yet, the Republicans who have emerged to challenge Menendez aren’t likely to strike much fear in his campaign. None has more than about $4,000 on-hand, according to the Federal Election Commission. Menendez has nearly $4 million. Ousting an incumbent senator — even an unpopular one — with no money is … difficult. That’s especially true for a Republican in blue New Jersey given how expensive New York and Philadelphia media markets are.
Why hasn’t a stronger challenger emerged given Menendez’s trial and weak approval numbers? It comes down to the fundamentals. There are just so many factors working in Menendez’s favor.
First, New Jersey is heavily Democratic. It’s 12 percentage points more Democratic-leaning than the nation as a whole, according to a weighted average of the last two presidential results.