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Inside the GOP’s bid to turn Cuellar and Menendez into Dem liabilities

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Republicans aren’t working hard to claim the seats of Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) and Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), even after their high-profile corruption-related indictments. But the GOP is laying plans to hang their legal problems around the necks of their Democratic colleagues.

In a year when the party faces a notably favorable Senate map replete with opportunities in more purple states, the National Republican Senatorial Committee is not making a play in New Jersey (good news for Rep. Andy Kim!). But the GOP’s Senate campaign arm is homing in on Sens. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) and Jon Tester (D-Mont.) in a bid to build Menendez’ indictments into a larger narrative that Democratic incumbents are ethically challenged.

“Bob Menendez’ comical level of corruption has brought political self-dealing to the forefront of voters’ minds. That is bad news for Bob Casey and Jon Tester, because they both have serious vulnerabilities on corruption and ethics issues,” NRSC spokesperson Mike Berg said in a statement to POLITICO.

Why Casey and Tester, and not others? Republicans have specifically eyed Casey and Tester as vulnerable to ethics critiques even before their colleague got indicted, thanks to past reports about their connections to lobbyists. Casey’s also been hit on certain donor ties, while Tester has faced some negative press about periodic lapses in his self-imposed ethics pledge.

Both Casey and Tester, notably, have called on Menendez to resign over his bribery charges.

“Jon Tester goes above and beyond nearly every Senate office when it comes to transparency and cracking down on lobbyist influence,” Tester spokesperson Monica Robinson said in response to the Republican jab.

Robinson also dinged likely GOP nominee Tim Sheehy’s “refusal to divest from his company” as a “major conflict of interest, as he tries to get elected to the very office that would steer lucrative federal contracts to his business.”

Casey spokesperson Maddy McDaniel similarly replied that “Pennsylvanians know Bob Casey for his decency, ethics, and honesty” and dinged GOP Senate nominee Dave McCormick for “dishonesty and self-dealing,” noting carpetbagger allegations against the candidate, among other subjects.

McCormick spokesperson Elizabeth Gregory responded: “On November 5, Pennsylvania will retire empty suit Bob Casey and send Dave McCormick to the Senate.”

Over in the House, the GOP has a similar strategy for Cuellar’s seat. Republicans targeted him directly last cycle, but this time around he has stayed off their list — until the indictment made his troubles a problem for the other House Democrat in a South Texas district.

Now the National Republican Congressional Committee is using Cuellar’s legal challenges to try to connect him with vulnerable Rep. Vicente Gonzalez. The latter Democrat is facing an uphill battle in his reelection against former GOP Rep. Mayra Flores, who lost the South Texas district to Gonzalez by 9 points last cycle.

“Cuellar’s indictment puts the other South Texas Democrats in a lose-lose spot – they either condemn their colleague or they stay silent and become complicit in the pattern of politicians using their positions for self-serving purposes. So far, Vicente Gonzalez and Michelle Vallejo have chosen to stay silent and put corruption ahead of serving South Texans,” said Delanie Bomar, an NRCC spokesperson, in a statement.

“Mayra has a lot more to worry about being endorsed and following and loving a 92-time indicted orange master than I have by somebody who’s two districts away and a very independent person,” Gonzalez said in a statement to POLITICO Tuesday. “The NRCC’s insinuation of me and South Texas is just one more racist and anti Latino remark the Republican Party is so used to making. Which is also why the majority of Latinos in this country continue to reject their party.”

Another front: The NRCC is also pushing House Democrats, including Minority Whip Katherine Clark, to return donations from Cuellar’s leadership PAC, called the Texas First PAC. The PAC gave Clark $5,000 this cycle.

Meanwhile, the GOP’s rising interest in ethics-related indictments doesn’t extend to Trump. And Democrats aren’t shying away from turning the presidential frontrunner’s New York trial into a potential problem for their opponents.

Take Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), who made headlines a few days ago when he stopped by to support the former president at his trial in New York — and was called out by Democratic opponent Debbie Mucarsel-Powell.

“Instead of showing up to vote on a bill that protects Florida travelers, strengthens air safety, and provides our aviation workforce with the resources they need to secure our skies, Rick Scott spent his day sucking up to a defendant found liable for sexual abuse,” she said in a statement.