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How Menendez trial could affect the Senate

Whatever the outcome of Sen. Bob Menendez's corruption trial, a high-stakes political scramble awaits, with a Democratic Senate seat on the line and potentially within Republicans' reach.

Sen. Robert Menendez’s bribery trial will begin Wednesday.
Sen. Robert Menendez’s bribery trial will begin Wednesday.Read moreJULIO CORTEZ / AP

WASHINGTON — The corruption trial of New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez, a Democrat, opens Wednesday in Newark. It will end in a high-stakes political scramble regardless of the courtroom outcome.

Here are ways the politics could play out.

If Menendez is convicted

This would set off the most unpredictable scenario.

The first question would be whether Menendez resigns or is forced out of office — which would allow Gov. Christie to name a replacement, presumably a fellow Republican, and at least temporarily increase the GOP's Senate majority.

The pressure to step down would be immense, but people who know Menendez say he is set on clearing his name and fighting this case to the finish. The Senate could expel him with a two-thirds vote, but hasn't taken that step since the 1800s, when a handful of lawmakers were booted for supporting the Confederacy.

Fellow Democrats would also face pressure to act against a colleague convicted of a felony, but would also know that doing so would hand the GOP another edge.

If the process stalls, it could play to Democrats' advantage. Christie's term ends in January and Democrat Phil Murphy is heavily favored to win the race to be the next governor. Murphy might be able to name the replacement if Menendez can hang on long enough for the new administration to take power.

If Christie names a replacement

The odds are against the trial and Senate reaction taking so long — which means Christie would likely get to appoint a senator if Menendez is convicted.

The next question would be how long his choice serves before Democrats can try to reclaim the seat.

Under New Jersey's vague laws about Senate vacancies, a special election to replace Menendez could wait until as late as November 2018, the date of the next regularly scheduled election.  That would leave Christie's appointee in place at least until then.

But Murphy, if he becomes governor, might be able to speed up the process. He could, some legal experts believe, call a faster special election (provided that Christie hadn't already done so) — giving Democrats a shot to win back the seat faster. A similar scenario recently played out over a Senate vacancy in Alabama, where a new governor accelerated the timetable set up by his predecessor.

The move would carry some downsides for Murphy. A special election just as he began his tenure would cost millions of dollars and would come just a few years after Democrats accused Christie of wasting money for political purposes when he called a special election to replace the late Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg in 2013.

If Menendez is found not guilty

If there is an acquittal  — as he insists  will happen — he is determined to seek another term in an attempt to fully vindicate himself.

The senator has raised money, held public events, and traveled New Jersey like a man seeking reelection — and has kept his approval ratings from falling as far as one might expect for someone under federal indictment.

Other New Jersey Democrats say privately that no one has spoken out against him because no one wants to cross the still-powerful senator, and because his troubles haven't threatened anyone else in the party. (They also know that the trial may force him out without any of them having to get their own hands dirty.)

But Menendez could face a new challenge once the trial serves up daily headlines. Two Democratic insiders said party leaders might  feel pressure to turn on the senator if they start facing awkward questions in the middle of their own fall campaigns.

That is, after all, what ultimately led to the political heat that forced former Sen. Robert Torricelli to drop his 2002 reelection bid as he faced his own ethics problems for also accepting expensive gifts from a donor.

Even if Menendez is found not guilty, he might still enter 2018 damaged by trial revelations tailor-made for attack ads. Would that give Republicans a shot in a deep blue state? Or embolden an ambitious Democrat to challenge him?

So far anyone interested in the seat has tread lightly — except Torricelli, who has openly coveted it, though even he might not challenge Menendez directly if the senator remains on the ballot.

But if Menendez is wounded, he could have another fight on his hands even after the trial.