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Pressure builds on Sen. Robert Menendez: Is it enough to topple him?

The New Jersey senator is accused of political favors, bribery, and prostitution. But those charges are difficult to prove, and experts say Menendez has the popularity to ride out the political storm. 

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Menendez has denied any wrongdoing. He called failure to disclose the trips an oversight caused by a hectic schedule and said allegations of prostitution were unsubstantiated “smears” by the right-wing media. 

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As for the reported favors, Menendez told Telemundo in an interview that aired Feb. 10, “No one has bought me, No. 1. No one. Ever. In the 20 years I’ve been in Congress, never has it been suggested that that could even be possible. Never in 40 years of public life. So I’m not going to reach this moment in my life to make that a possibility.”

Senate Democrats, including Sen. Harry Reid (D), Sen. Dick Durbin (D), and Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D), Menendez's New Jersey colleague in the Senate, have also stood by the embattled politician.  

That influential backing, coupled with the sheer difficulty of proving the allegations, are likely to work in Menendez's favor, analysts say. 

“Unless there is some documented evidence to the fact that, ‘If you do this, I’ll give you this,’ the usual defense is that politicians do this all the time,” says Dr. Baker. Linking Melgen’s contributions to favors from Menendez, he adds, is a tough task.

The senator has also enjoyed wide support from other Senate Democrats, many of whom Menendez has helped over his 40-year career, says Harrison.

“Menendez ingratiated himself to many Democrats in the Senate in his role as chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. A lot of folks owe their election to his fundraising prowess,” she says. “People are indebted to him, they know him, they like him, he has helped them – there’s a bit of loyalty toward him.”

Menendez’s constituents have been similarly tolerant.

“I don’t see a whole lot of people in New Jersey getting really riled up about this,” says Harrison. “You’re not seeing the kind of passionate outrage that you might anticipate.”

That’s due in part, she says, to a cynical populace used to political scandal and a relatively liberal culture with regards to social morays. “I don’t think that in the state of New Jersey this is a political death sentence,” Harrison says.

Indeed, the senator has built a 40-year career in the state and was re-elected to a second term in the Senate this past fall with 58.5 percent of the vote. Still, he does risk succumbing to the same fate as another New Jersey Senator, Robert Torricelli, who decided not to run for re-election in 2002 amid allegations that he helped a major donor in exchange for gifts and contributions.

But it’s an unlikely fate, according to both Harrison and Baker.

“Barring some new revelations … I think his chances for survival are good,” says Baker.

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