So, about that underage prostitute thing

The blue-state Senate seat Democrats never thought they'd have to worry about in 2013

Published January 31, 2013 12:27PM (EST)

We might as well address the possibility that Republicans will end up claiming a Senate seat from a very blue state this year.

No, I’m not talking about Massachusetts, although it is possible that Scott Brown, who appears to be readying for a comeback bid, will defeat his Democratic opponent – likely Ed Markey, but maybe Steve Lynch – and return to the upper chamber. The unexpected drama this week is playing out a few states to the south, in New Jersey.

It’s hard to say exactly how much trouble that state’s junior senator, Bob Menendez, may be in, or if he’s in any trouble at all. Certainly, though, the headlines are alarming, and the existence of an FBI investigation has got to be concerning to Democrats, who know that any scandal that forces Menendez from the Senate would empower Gov. Chris Christie to appoint a Republican successor.

What’s known now is that the FBI on Monday raided the office of a Florida eye doctor who is one of Menendez’s top campaign donors, and with whom the senator has socialized over the years. The eye doctor, Saloman Melgen, has an outstanding tax lien of over $11 million, and as the Miami Herald reported, the presence of an investigator from the Department of Health and Human Services also suggested potential Medicare fraud.

The potentially salacious aspect of the case has its roots in an item that Tucker Carlson’s Daily Caller ran just before the November election, when Menendez won his second full term with ease. The Caller’s vaguely sourced report alleged that Menendez had flown on Melgen’s private jet to the Dominican Republic to engage in sex with prostitutes. Because of the Caller’s reputation and the lack of solid corroboration, the story was widely ignored when it was published.

But more recently, what appear to be emails between an FBI agent and an anonymous man who identifies himself as “Pete Williams” have emerged online, with Williams supposedly providing the agent with evidence that Menendez engaged in sex with an underage prostitute in 2009. The emails suggest the agent contacted Williams after being tipped off by an ethics watchdog group in Washington – Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), which has confirmed that Williams shared his allegations with them and that they forwarded them to the FBI.

The FBI won’t say precisely what it is investigating or what it was looking for at Melgen’s office, and Menendez insists that his relationship with the donor has always been aboveboard and that the allegations of prostitution use are a politically motivated smear. Also, CREW’s executive director told the Star-Ledger that she had doubts about Williams' credibility when he presented her with his allegations.

So, the best case scenario for Menendez, obviously, is that there’s nothing to this, that the investigation doesn’t really involve him, or that if it does, his name will soon be cleared. It should be noted that he’s been down this road before. At the height of his first Senate bid, in 2006, word leaked from the New Jersey U.S. Attorney’s Office – an office led by Christie – that Menendez was being investigated by the feds for a potential quid pro quo arrangement with a nonprofit group that rented space in a building he owned. The leak came with Menendez locked in a tough battle with Republican Tom Kean Jr. and nothing more ever came of it. New Jersey Democrats are convinced to this day that the investigation was a sham, perhaps a simple effort to take down Menendez, perhaps a piece of the broader scandal involving Bush-appointed U.S. attorneys that played out that year. Either way, Menendez was never charged and was officially cleared by a different U.S. attorney five years later. Maybe this investigation will end similarly.

Of course, it’s also possible there’s something to this. Maybe Menendez did travel to the Dominican and use prostitutes but there’s no hard evidence to prove it – just lots of suspicion. If that’s the case, then he’s probably safe, politically. But what if there’s more than just suspicion that he used prostitutes – what if there’s proof that he used underage prostitutes, or circumstantial evidence emerges that makes it seem likely that he did? That would be a whole different matter, one that would immediately call into question Menendez’s ability to continue serving as a senator. If he did use prostitutes – a big if – there’s just a huge distinction in the court of public opinion between an encounter with a consenting adult and one with a minor.

Under the worst case scenario for Menendez, he’d be forced to resign sometime in the coming months. The precise date would be important. New Jersey election law is maddeningly vague and complex, but the bottom line is that Christie would be empowered to appoint an immediate successor and would have considerable latitude in choosing the special election date. He could, for instance, opt to hold a stand-alone Senate special election this summer, in addition to the regularly scheduled statewide election this fall – an election that will feature Christie as the Republican gubernatorial nominee. Or he could schedule the Senate special to coincide with the gubernatorial race. Or, if a Menendez resignation were to occur within 70 days of this November’s election, Christie would have the option of holding a stand-alone special Senate election sometime after November, or waiting until the regularly scheduled 2014 general election. Got all that?

Realistically, Christie would prefer a stand-alone special election – to keep any Senate race away from the gubernatorial race, since he’s already well-positioned to win reelection. Why complicate it by tossing another high-profile contest – one Democrats would be far better positioned to win – onto the ballot on the same day? Democrats would probably prefer a stand-alone special too; why risk having Christie’s popularity – 74 percent in the latest Quinnipiac poll – rub off on the GOP’s Senate nominee?

The good news for Democrats is that their nominee would likely be Cory Booker, who would be a formidable statewide candidate. But Booker is starting to take some punches, there’s no guarantee his popularity will hold up, nor is it certain that he’d run – especially with Frank Lautenberg still very likely to retire in ’14. Plus, the Democratic nominee would be opposing a de facto incumbent – whomever Christie appoints to the seat, someone who could use that quasi-incumbency to build name recognition and popularity. And who would Christie turn to? The GOP bench is thin in New Jersey, but one fascinating name I heard tonight: Woody Johnson, the New York Jets owner, who was one of Mitt Romney’s top backers last year.

Republicans haven’t won a Senate race in New Jersey since 1972, and even if Menendez resigns, that streak is likely to endure. But with Christie empowered to pick an interim senator, they’d have a fighting chance of pulling it out. A 2013 fight for a New Jersey Senate seat was not on any Democrat’s radar until a few days ago. Like the senator, they’re surely hoping nothing more comes from this FBI investigation.

By Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki is an MSNBC host and political correspondent. Previously, he hosted “Up with Steve Kornacki” on Saturday and Sunday 8-10 a.m. ET and was a co-host on MSNBC’s ensemble show “The Cycle.” He has written for the New York Observer, covered Congress for Roll Call, and was the politics editor for Salon. His book, which focuses on the political history of the 1990s, is due out in 2017.

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Chris Christie Cory Booker D-n.j. Opening Shot Robert Menendez Woody Johnson