TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez's political fate in next year's crucial midterms after the mistrial in his federal bribery case may hinge on whether prosecutors retry him and whether attacks from Republicans based on the indictment convince voters to keep him from a third term.
Fresh off a victory lap at the courthouse, where Menendez thanked those who stood by him and promised to remember those who opposed him during his darkest hours, the two-term incumbent wasted no time jumping back into his Senate schedule. He appeared alongside Democratic Rep. Albio Sires on Friday to urge New Jersey residents to sign up for the Affordable Care Act, with open enrollment ending next month.
"Today is Resurrection Day," Menendez said after the mistrial. "For those who were digging my political grave so they could jump into my seat, I know who you are and I won't forget it."
Menendez hasn't said whether he will seek a third term, but his top political adviser, Mike Soliman, says that signs point to him running in 2018 and an announcement is expected in the coming weeks.
It's not the only announcement being closely watched for. Prosecutors face a decision about whether to retry the charges, including bribery and honest services fraud. The indictment against Menendez alleges that he helped Florida eye doctor and friend Salomon Melgen with a nearly $9 million Medicare billing dispute in exchange for lavish vacations and campaign donations.
Republicans have put a political target on Menendez because of the trial and are likely to leverage the indictments as best they can next year, when a third of the 52-48 Republican-led chamber faces re-election and with President Donald Trump eager to notch legislative victories that have so far been elusive.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, for example, immediately called for an ethics panel investigation stemming from the indictments after the mistrial. The bipartisan Senate Ethics Committee said it would resume an inquiry that began in 2012 and was paused a year later because of the criminal investigation.
But in blue New Jersey, where Democrat Phil Murphy just won by nearly 14 points over Republican Gov. Chris Christie's top deputy, and Hillary Clinton defeated Donald Trump by double digits, Menendez is getting senior-senator-style deference. All the state's top officials — from Murphy to the legislative leaders — are behind his potential 2018 run.
George Norcross, considered the state's most influential unelected Democrat, threw his and his brother Democratic Rep. Donald Norcross' support to Menendez.
"We look forward to working for his re-election," George Norcross said. "He's been a great champion for New Jersey and we look forward to his continued work in the United States Senate."
In other words: best wishes to any Democrat who tries to challenge Menendez in the primary.
Menendez has raised more than $6 million between a legal defense fund and for his 2018 re-election campaign since he was indicted in April 2015. He raised $2.5 million for his re-election from January through September of this year and had $3.9 million in his campaign account.
Still, his approval ratings during the trial took a dip. Half of New Jersey voters said in a poll released in September that Menendez did not deserve re-election and only 31 percent approved of the job he was doing. The Quinnipiac University poll surveyed 1,121 people and had a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
Contact Catalini at https://www.twitter.com/mikecatalini