New Jersey Senate Shakeup Leaves Rep. Andy Kim’s Backers Pumped

U.S. Rep. Andy Kim (D., N.J.) speaks to the Burlington County Democratic Convention last month as he runs for Senate. (Yong Kim/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS)

WASHINGTON (CQ-Roll Call/TNS)— Progressive and grassroots groups that backed Rep. Andy Kim as he challenged New Jersey’s Democratic power brokers in the race for a Senate nomination cheered the decision by his chief rival, Tammy Murphy, to drop out of the race as a victory for democracy.

Murphy, the wife of Gov. Phil Murphy, announced Sunday that she was suspending her campaign, providing a huge boost to Kim’s bid for the Democratic nomination. Her announcement came days after incumbent Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez, who is facing federal bribery charges, said he won’t be on the June primary ballot.

And now Kim, a three-term House member who flipped a seat in 2018, could be in a good position to win the seat in November in a state that last elected a Republican to the Senate in 1972. But in doing so, he could also upend the state’s political machinery, which for decades has given preferential ballot placement known as “the line” to candidates backed by powerful county organizations. 

Kim filed a lawsuit earlier this year seeking to overhaul the state’s ballot design. Matt Platkin, the state’s attorney general, said he would not defend the ballot design process in court.

“He took a big gamble,” said Ezra Levin, a co-executive director of Indivisible, a group that backed Kim over Murphy. “Having won this fight, he has done a lot for himself and, in my mind, for the state.” 

Kim announced a challenge to Menendez the day after charges were unveiled against the senior senator in September, whereas Murphy waited to announce her campaign after building support from other New Jersey Democrats, including from other members of the House. New Jersey Reps. Mikie Sherrill and Josh Gottheimer, potential rivals in next year’s governor’s race, both said Monday that they were endorsing Kim after previously backing Murphy. 

While Murphy had institutional support for her campaign, and the line in counties that were home to some of the biggest blocs of Democrats, grassroots support for Kim swelled. He won the line in nine conventions with secret ballots, including in Murphy’s home county of Monmouth along the Jersey Shore.

“She became a symbol of everything that’s wrong with New Jersey politics,” said Jeff Tittel, a retired state director of the Sierra Club.

Democrats Patricia Campos-Medina, a labor leader, and Lawrence Hamm, a perennial candidate, are also on the ballot in the Democratic primary. But Kim was already looking past the nomination and focusing on November, when control of the Senate is at stake along with the battle between President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump.

“We will continue our efforts to strengthen our democracy in New Jersey while we come together to stand up against the dangerous agenda pushed by Trump,” Kim said in a Sunday statement about Murphy dropping out. “I look forward to working alongside her, and the Governor, between now and November, and I hope to work alongside them to fight for New Jersey if I’m elected to represent our amazing state in the U.S. Senate.”

Menendez is set to go on trial in early May to face charges that include acting as a foreign agent. He was indicted in September, alongside his wife and three New Jersey businessmen, on charges that the couple accepted bribes in exchange for Menendez using his influence to benefit the Egyptian government. Additional charges also allege Menendez sought to benefit the Qatari government, and he was charged earlier this month with obstruction of justice.

One of his co-defendants has pleaded guilty and is reportedly cooperating with prosecutors.

Menendez, who has maintained his innocence and withstood calls to resign, said last week that he hoped to run as an “independent Democrat” in November. While the deadline to file to run in June has passed, the deadline to file as an independent is primary day, June 4.

But his approval ratings sank after the indictment, which included images of cash and gold bars that were found in his home. He previously won reelection in 2018 after beating an earlier federal indictment. A jury had been unable to reach a verdict and the judge acquitted him on the most serious charges, after which the Justice Department dropped the remaining charges.

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