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The Weird Gimmick That May Decide New Jersey’s Next Senator

When Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) was indicted for a years-long bribery scheme, Rep. Andy Kim (D-NJ) seized on the opportunity to launch a Senate bid the very next day.

Pitching himself as a straitlaced alternative to the corruption-magnet that is Menendez, the three-term congressman raked in nearly $1 million over his first week in the race.

“I want to restore integrity back into our politics, show people that there are public servants that are trying to do the right work, and put the people ahead of personal gain or ambition and just be able to deliver for my state,” Kim told The Daily Beast, rehashing a point he has made to just about anybody who will listen.

But just weeks after Kim launched his campaign, a New Jersey political giant has entered the arena. The state’s wealthy and well-connected first lady, Tammy Murphy, announced her Senate bid last month and has since racked up endorsements from powerful local leaders. And while Kim is currently leading in polls, there’s an old school political machine reason why Murphy may become the favorite.

In New Jersey’s primary elections, 19 of 21 counties give prime real estate on the ballot to the preferred candidates of county parties in a process known as the “county line.”

Julia Rubin, a Rutgers public policy professor and expert on the county line balloting, has found that candidates that were on the county line have a 38-point advantage over their opponents.

Rubin described the line bluntly to The Daily Beast: “It’s very, very powerful.”

Rubin called the system, “one of the last vestiges of political machines,” and likened the process to New York’s notorious Tammany Hall in the early 20th century.

“We have a system that is not dramatically different, where essentially, five men decide who’s going to be our governor, who’s going to be our senators,” Rubin said. “Because we have this overwhelming power in the county line system, and that power resides legally in the county party chairs and the largest county chairs account for a disproportionate number of votes.”

Unfortunately for Kim, the party chairs from those five key counties—Middlesex, Essex, Hudson, Camden, and Bergen—which account for about half of New Jersey voters, have all come out in support of Murphy. Her husband, Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy, carried all 19 county endorsements during his first run in 2017.

Kim told The Daily Beast he’s seeking other party chair endorsements, but with the support of those five counties, Murphy appears to have dashed any hopes Kim had of working within the system.

Rubin—who is neutral in the race—told The Daily Beast it’s possible that candidates can overcome the county line, citing a 2020 example when a county-backed political science professor lost in the primary to Amy Kennedy, the wife of former Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-NJ). (Kennedy went on to lose in the general election to Rep. Jeff Van Drew (R-NJ).)

“What you need is a lot of resources. Like Andy Kim has to be able to raise a lot of money in this particular case. And then I think he has to run as a reformer, he has to run against the machine and the political systems that enable the machines to prosper,” Rubin said.

“Amy Kennedy did some of that when she ran,” Rubin continued. But Kennedy, she said, “wasn’t running against the governor’s wife and her opponent hasn’t been endorsed by every one of those counties.”

Kim has focused much of his campaign messaging on calling out the New Jersey political machine, using Menendez as a punching bag and criticizing the county line process.

“It’s absolutely critical that we ensure that this is a fair process, that this is a process where their vote is gonna matter as much as anybody else’s,” Kim told The Daily Beast. “And they’re not going to take it lightly if it feels like someone’s putting their thumb on the scale.”

Yet most of New Jersey’s Democratic delegation in Congress—including Reps. Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ), Rep. Mikie Sherrill (D-NJ), and Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ)—have also endorsed Murphy.

Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-NJ) told The Daily Beast he doesn’t have “any reservations” about backing Murphy and called her “a person who wants to learn and she wants to be helpful.”

Pascrell—whose district overlaps with much of Bergen County—acknowledged, though, that the county line endorsements were “part of the equation.”

“It was difficult for me to tell him,” Pascrell said of his friend Kim. “But don’t forget. That’s the line in every county and eight counties have already jumped in the pool. Do I fight my county chairman?”

For her part, Murphy said in a statement to The Daily Beast that she’s “building a broad coalition of support across the state and the county lines are one piece of the puzzle.”

With the county chairs and New Jersey delegation lining up for Murphy, New Jersey operatives say Kim will have to rely on heavy outside fundraising and lean on progressive support.

“The challenge for the Kim campaign is to both be an insider and an outsider at the same time,” New Jersey Democratic strategist Bill Caruso told The Daily Beast.

To keep up with D.C. fundraising, Caruso said Kim would have cast himself as a politician familiar with the beltway by showing off his policy bona fides. But Kim also would have to run as an outsider to the New Jersey political machine so he can attract critical progressive resources.

“This is really more of a test to the progressive advocacy movement in New Jersey, because if they’re going to take on the line and win with a candidate like Kim’s they’re gonna have to do everything possible to do that because history has shown us, the line wins,” Caruso said.

Kim, a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, has courted the progressive wing of the New Jersey Democratic party. He has won endorsements from progressive news website Daily Kos, progressive veterans group VoteVets, and the Progressive Turnout Project—a PAC “dedicated to mobilizing the Democratic Party.”

“While some candidates will benefit from being well off or well connected, Andy has the benefit of running robust campaigns that grassroots activists and voters will remember when they go to organize and cast their ballots next year,” said Progressive Turnout Project President Alex Morgan in a statement.

“Democrats like Andy Kim,” he continued. “They know he’s honest and they know he will stand up for New Jersey and our democracy. That’s why they’re going to be energized to get out the vote and add the ‘field margin’ that he needs to win.”

But New Jersey’s June primary could also work against Kim as the summer election won’t draw the same turnout as the November general election, when the presidential election will invigorate voters. Morgan said that means direct voter-contact efforts like door-knocking will be key for the Kim campaign.

Kim has leaned into this campaign strategy, branding his campaign as a “grassroots effort” while emphasizing his experience on Capitol Hill. Asked what distinguishes him as a candidate from Murphy, he leaned on his legislative background.

“I’m somebody that people don’t need to wonder what kind of legislator I’ll be because I’ve done the work,” Kim said.

Lack of experience has been one of the top charges leveled at Kim’s opponent since her entry into the campaign. Murphy is far from a political newcomer. She’s been heavily involved in her husband’s administration for the past six years—so much so that a $13,000 office door was installed for the first lady down the hall from her husband.

But Murphy has never before held public office. In her campaign launch video, Murphy outlined her professional resume, including her finance background at Goldman Sachs—where she met Phil. She’s also touted her record on maternal and infant health issues.

Coincidentally—or at least that’s how the Murphy campaign would like you to see it—two days after Murphy announced her campaign, the state of New Jersey released a $100,000 radio advertisement about maternal and infant health. The state then stopped the 30-second spot out of an “abundance of caution and to avoid even the slightest appearance of impropriety.”

As she has fielded favoritism accusations, Murphy remains steadfast that she will win the race herself, highlighting her work statewide and relationships with elected Democrats, faith leaders, advocates and community organizers in “every corner” of New Jersey.

“Let me be clear, I will work to earn the trust, support, and votes of every New Jerseyan and win this race on my own merit,” she said in a statement to The Daily Beast.

What Murphy may lack in experience, she makes up for in deep pockets.

In 2021, the Murphys reported $5.2 million in income, and in 2017 Phil Murphy contributed $16 million to his gubernatorial primary campaign. Murphy also has a reputation as a talented fundraiser.

Murphy’s candidacy has also brought up her past as a Republican voter and donor, presenting fodder for her opponents. Murphy voted in a Republican primary as recently as 2014. And as reported by Politico, in 2002, Murphy donated $20,000 to the New Jersey Republican State Committee. (Murphy also donated to Democrats, like Hillary Clinton’s New York Senate bid, the same year.)

Menendez—who has not said if he plans to launch a doomed re-election bid—blasted Murphy for her GOP background.

“While Tammy Murphy was a card-carrying Republican for years, I was working to elect Democrats up and down the ballot and fighting in Washington to deliver for hardworking families in New Jersey,” he said in a statement after Murphy launched her campaign.

Murphy said she has not voted in a Republican general election “in decades” and has never wavered from her “pro-choice, pro-environment, pro-gun safety, and pro-education” stances.

“Decades ago, I began to witness the Republican Party moving away from me, and therefore I started voting for Democrats over Republicans,” she said. “My primary focus has always been supporting the right causes and the right people, rather than party affiliation.”

Despite the criticism of Murphy, strategists told The Daily Beast the first lady’s well-connected, well-funded and widely supported bid will give her the edge in June.

But, as Republican New Jersey strategist Chris Russell said, “Andy Kim is certainly not to be underestimated.”

Source: Daily Beast