Scandal drags down Menendez's approval rating

Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) speaks during a press conference on an agreement for principles on comprehensive immigration reform framework at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on January 28, 2013.
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Investigations into Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., have yet to lead to any official charges of wrongdoing, but the controversy -- which revolves around his ties to a political donor and the allegation he solicited prostitutes in the Dominican Republic -- is still taking a toll on his approval rating.

Just 36 percent of New Jersey voters approve of the job Menendez is doing, while 41 percent disapprove, according to a new Quinnipiac poll, conducted Feb. 13-17.

That's a 15-point drop from Quinnipiac's Jan. 23 poll, when 51 percent of voters approved of the job Menendez is doing. News of FBI investigations linked to Menendez began to emerge about a week after that, when the FBI raided the West Palm Beach, Fla., office of doctor Salomon Melgen. Melgen, who was accused of improperly billing Medicare nearly $9 million, is a close friend and donor of Menendez's.

Menendez has been accused of improperly lobbying the State Department on a port security contract on Melgen's behalf. The FBI is also looking into whether Menendez solicited prostitutes while in the Dominican Republic (where prostitution is legal), at a resort where Melgen has a home. The Senate Ethics Committtee is also investigating the claims.

After his relationship with Melgen came under scrutiny, Menendez reimbursed Melgen $58,000 for two of three trips he took on Melgen's plane to the Dominican Republic in 2010. The senator called the tardy reimbursement an honest oversight and says the allegations against him are "absolutely false."

The controversy comes as Menendez is gaining a higher profile in the Senate: The Cuban-American senator is part of the bipartisan "gang of eight" that is drafting immigration legislation, and he also is the new chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

The latest Quinnipiac poll shows that 44 percent of New Jersey voters now say Menendez is not honest and trustworthy, while 28 percent think he is. Seventy percent of New Jersey voters have read or heard something about the controversy, and among that group, 59 percent said it lowered their opinion of the senator. Of those who had heard about it, 67 percent said the allegations are worth investigating, while 23 percent think they are politically motivated.

While his approval rating has taken a hit amid the scandal, Menendez has time to recover -- the 59-year-old divorced Democrat is not up for re-election until 2018.

In 2014, Newark Mayor Cory Booker, a Democrat, has said he may run for New Jersey's other Senate seat, when Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., retires. Television and radio personality Geraldo Rivera has also expressed interest in running for the seat as a Republican. Today's Quinnipiac poll shows that in a head-to-head match up right now, Booker would beat Rivera 59 percent to 23 percent.