New Jersey Democrats face unsavory vote dilemma
What's worse? Re-electing a Democrat tainted by corruption allegations or allowing a safe seat to flip for Donald Trump? That's the dilemma facing New Jersey liberals in America's contentious midterm elections on Tuesday.
Party leaders are urging Democratic faithful to sacrifice their principles for the greater good of thrashing the Republican president at the polls and re-elect Senator Bob Menendez, who last year went on trial for corruption.
Democrats desperately want to win back Congress on Tuesday, or at least not lose ground. Republicans currently have the upper hand 51 to 49 in the Senate, giving the Democrats little wiggle room should Menendez fall.
"Now more than ever, we need American citizens to answer the call of country," rising Democratic star and fellow New Jersey Senator Cory Booker told a last-ditch campaign event for Menendez on Sunday.
"Because this is not a left or right moment, this a right or wrong moment," Booker told the crowd in Hoboken, the town where Frank Sinatra was born that overlooks Manhattan across the Hudson River.
As he spoke, chants of "Menendez is corrupt" reverberated from a handful of Republican activists standing in the background.
The 64-year-old Menendez has been senator in this traditionally safe Democrat seat since 2006. A reliable Democrat from humble origins, he is proud of standing up for Obamacare, public education and autistic children.
Except that he's far from the ideal candidate. Long shadowed by suspicions of corruption, he was federally indicted and then put on trial in 2017 for allegedly accepting kickbacks from an eye doctor.
- Nerves shredded -
The trial ended in a hung jury and he escaped conviction, but his reputation took a hit. He was formally reprimanded by the Senate's ethics committee and forced to repay at least part of the gifts he received.
He also took a dent in the polls. In early October, 49 percent said he was guilty of serious wrongdoing and only 29 percent could muster a favorable opinion of him, according to a Quinnipiac University poll.
Menendez is up against wealthy Republican Bob Hugin, a former pharmaceuticals boss and devoted Trump supporter, who although not well known, is estimated to have spent nearly $37 million and pumped out ads attacking Menendez.
Even if polls put Menendez comfortably ahead -- a Stockton University poll published Friday had him up 12 points -- as recently as last week the respected Cook Political Report called the race a "toss-up."
On the ground, Democrats' nerves are shredded.
The top Democrat in the Senate, Chuck Schumer, has reportedly injected nearly $6 million into the Menendez campaign to pay for television ads portraying him as the only one capable of stopping Trump and piling the guilt onto any Democrats thinking about abstaining.
New Jersey's other Senator, the more famous and oft-rumored presidential hopeful Booker, went into bat for his colleague on Sunday, accompanying Menendez to five back-to-back campaign events.
"If there is hate being preached from the highest offices in the land, there is one guy I want in the trench next to me, fighting on the front lines of our country... that's Bob Menendez," he told voters in Hoboken.
- 'Hold my nose' -
"If you know anyone who has a doubt, tell them that a vote for anyone other than Bob Menendez is a vote for Donald Trump," said the town's Democrat Mayor Ravinder Bhalla.
Among the crowd of some 400 people in the audience, most of them committed Democrats, the concern was palpable as the vote approaches.
"I am terrified," acknowledged Jonathan Fritz, father of a 10-year-old, who says he's voting Menendez regardless of any whiff of corruption. "I have never been so afraid for my country.
"I am afraid of authoritarian dictators... if Democrats lose in this election, there is going to be no check on his (Trump's ) power," Fritz said.
He equated the Trump presidency to learning about the 1930s in school.
Shelby Issersohn, 26, who works in advertising, said she "definitely" has a "little bit of concern" about voting for Menendez.
"But when it comes to our options right now, we know the policies he represents matter a lot more than any scandals he may be accused of," she told AFP.
On October 28, The Star-Ledger newspaper urged voters to "Choke it down and vote Menendez" despite what it called the most "depressing" local Senate race in a generation "with two awful candidates."
"When you get past ethics, the central issue in this race is Donald Trump... That makes this an easy decision," it advised. "I'll hold my nose and vote for Menendez," agreed a columnist in The Times of Trenton daily.
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