Amid the news coverage of hurricanes and all things President Trump, one could be forgiven for barely noticing that a corruption trial involving a sitting US senator began in New Jersey this week. In a few months, however, it might be the biggest thing we’re talking about — at least when it comes to politics.
That’s because the implications of the bribery case facing Democratic US Senator Bob Menendez could extend far beyond New Jersey. Why, you ask? Because it could ultimately affect the balance of power in Washington. Even stranger, it could lay the groundwork for New Jersey Governor Chris Christie — the least popular governor in America — to appoint himself to the Senate.
Of course, many things could affect the balance of power in the Senate. The difference is this one could happen in a matter of weeks.
Federal prosecutors allege that Menendez accepted about $1 million worth of all-expenses-paid vacations from a wealthy Florida doctor. In return, prosecutors contend, Menendez tried to get the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services to back off its demands that the doctor pay back $8.9 million that he was found to have overbilled. Menendez is also accused of using his influence as the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair to lobby the State Department to help the doctor’s X-ray business.
Both Menendez and the doctor, Dr. Salomon Melgen, were investigated and indicted during the Obama administration. Both pleaded not guilty on all 18 counts of fraud and bribery charges. The trial began Wednesday.
Should Menendez be convicted, he won’t automatically lose his seat in Congress. Even if he faces prison time, he’ll still technically be a senator until he either resigns, loses his 2018 reelection bid, or is expelled from the chamber by a vote of his Senate colleagues.
This is where the politics get interesting.
The thing to watch is the calendar. Should Menendez be convicted and either step down or be tossed from the Senate before the end of the year, it would mean that Christie would get to pick his replacement. Christie has said that he wouldn’t appoint himself, but he would assuredly appoint a Republican. (It’s not without precedence. In 2013, Christie appointed a Republican to fill the Senate seat left open when Democratic Senator Frank Lautenberg died.)
That said, Christie’s term ends at the end of the year. The election to replace him is this November. The most recent Monmouth University poll showed Democratic nominee Phil Murphy with a 27-point lead over Republican nominee Kim Guadagno, Christie’s lieutenant governor.
The political dynamic is obvious. Democrats want the trial — or the conviction — to take at least long enough for there to be a Democratic governor in New Jersey to pick a replacement. Republicans will want Menendez gone as soon as possible so Christie can replace him with a Republican.
There is also the scenario where Menendez is convicted but doesn’t resign and isn’t forced out. He could argue that he deserves to stay in office while he appeals a conviction. And Democratic leaders could agree. Meanwhile, Republicans, who currently control the Senate, could move quickly to try to expel him. At the very least, they could force every Democrat in the country — particularly those in tough reelection fights — to say whether they believe Menendez should resign or be allowed to stay and vote for the Democratic agenda.
This is exactly what happened to a man who held the exact same New Jersey Senate seat in 1980. Four-term Senator Harrison Williams was also convicted on bribery charges but only later resigned when it became clear the Senate was going to vote to expel him.
Given that the Obamacare repeal vote in the Senate this summer failed by just one vote, this one seat really matters — and by extension, so does this trial.James Pindell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell or subscribe to his Ground Game newsletter on politics: http://pages.email.bostonglobe.com/GroundGameSignUp.