New Jersey's Senate Seat Showdown Unveils Democratic Rift

By Greg Moriarty | Friday, 01 March 2024 05:15 AM
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In a surprising turn of events, New Jersey's first lady, Tammy Murphy, extended her congratulations to Rep. Andy Kim following his third consecutive victory in his quest for a U.S. Senate seat.

This unexpected gesture of goodwill was a surprise within a surprise, as the Senate seat only became competitive due to the indictment of incumbent Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez on federal corruption charges last year.

Kim's successive wins in three state county committee votes have sparked a sudden momentum for the three-term congressman. His challenge is more formidable than usual against a well-connected political figure in a state where connections carry significant weight. This is particularly relevant in the Democratic stronghold of New Jersey, where Democratic primaries often determine elections, and primary winners are sometimes selected by party leaders in behind-the-scenes meetings well before the primaries.

This week, Kim filed a lawsuit in federal court challenging the method counties use to draw ballots in favor of candidates with party backing. Despite the surprising nature of Kim's victories in three counties, including his and the first lady’s home county, the race is far from over. Murphy, a veteran of the high finance world with years of cultivating allies among state party leaders, has already secured the backing of party bosses in the more populous counties of Bergen, Camden, and Essex.

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Menendez has not yet announced whether he will seek another term. The charges against him have generated sensational headlines and are widely viewed as potentially career-ending. Despite pleading not guilty and maintaining a defiant stance, the turmoil surrounding his seat, long considered safe for Democrats, is palpable.

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However, Kim's victories suggest that the race for the Democratic nomination won't be a walk in the park for any candidate. The race pits Kim, perhaps best known for being spotted cleaning debris from the U.S. Capitol after the Jan. 6 insurrection three years ago, against Murphy, who is married to Gov. Phil Murphy and has made maternal mortality her signature issue as first lady.

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Kim's lawsuit indicates his belief that New Jersey's practice of giving better ballot positioning to candidates favored by local insiders could give Murphy an unfair advantage, a view shared by many political observers.

Daniel Cassino, executive director of the Fairleigh Dickinson University Poll, commented, "We do not have competitive primaries. We in theory have them, but in practice we have party leaders who get behind closed doors and the nominee is presented to the public as a fait accompli. This is your candidate, love it or lump it. The fact that we’re actually having this primary is a sign something has gone awry."

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The competition between Kim and Murphy began almost immediately after the Menendez indictment was announced. This gave New Jersey a rare competitive Democratic primary for one of only three statewide seats — the others, for a second Senate seat and governor, aren’t on the ballot this year.

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While the seat may remain in Democratic hands, a contentious campaign could drain energy and resources as the party prepares for a grueling presidential campaign and the larger battle to control Congress.

Kim framed his candidacy in terms of public distrust of officials and party insiders, specifically citing Menendez's indictments. A 2015 federal corruption indictment against Menendez ended in a hung jury and with prosecutors dropping the case. Kim expressed concern in an interview that progressive Democrats who oppose the party bosses' influence and independents might abstain from the November election if they believe Murphy's candidacy was imposed on them.

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"If the Democrats don’t fix this and show that this is a credible and legitimate process, I think that this Senate seat could be in jeopardy this November. And I think that that’s something I absolutely refuse to see happen because I’ve been there in Congress. I know exactly what the Republicans would do if they have the majority in the Senate," Kim said.

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Tammy Murphy, who briefly worked at Goldman Sachs and helped start a policy think tank in New Jersey, refuted the idea that the support she has is based on her marriage to Phil. She stated on Saturday that she isn't asking for his help. She also defended her departure from the Republican Party, which she left shortly before her husband's run for governor in 2017.

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"I’ve been on the ground for the last eight years, literally building the party," she said. "I’ve shown up serially in all these, all the red counties where they needed help. I showed up."

She added: "Many people are leaving the Republican Party here now, and I will tell you, I have stood for the same values since day one. Absolutely the same values."

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The possibility of Republicans winning the seat in November is exaggerated, according to Cassino, largely because the state leans so heavily Democratic and because it's an election year. Ben Dworkin, who heads the Rowan Institute for Public Policy & Citizenship, echoed this sentiment, noting that Republicans haven't been elected to the Senate in New Jersey since 1972.

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Republicans are dealing with their own primary, featuring southern New Jersey businessman Curtis Bashaw, Mendham Mayor Christine Serrano Glassner, and former TV news reporter Alex Zdan. Also running in the Democratic primary are labor leader Patricia Campos-Medina and civil rights activist Lawrence Hamm.

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Shortly before the Burlington Democratic Party results were announced on Saturday, voters leaving the hall greeted each other with smiles and hugs. Kim and Murphy both stopped to chat with people.

Murphy had spoken earlier in the day about the need to send "ticked off" moms to Washington to fight for families. Kim had emphasized his roots in the county and pledged to fight for the state, particularly in light of the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection and the threat to the country's democracy.

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Several voters acknowledged the awkwardness of having the first lady and their congressman competing and declined to say which one they supported. However, they seemed more certain about their determination to win in November.

"We’ll come together," said Gina LaPlaca, a local official in Burlington County. "The threat from Republicans is too much."

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