Andy Kim deals blow to New Jersey Democratic machine

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Rep. Andy Kim’s (D-N.J.) insurgent Senate bid has overcome the New Jersey Democratic machine, likely cementing him as the state’s next senator after a whirlwind week saw the path to the seat cleared. 

Kim seized control of the Democratic primary in recent days, buoyed by a groundswell of support that led to New Jersey first lady Tammy Murphy’s decision to exit the race over the weekend, ahead of Monday’s filing deadline. Days before, Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) also dropped his bid for the Democratic nomination and instead said he will consider a run as an independent if he is cleared of charges accusing him of accepting bribes and acting as a foreign agent. 

The progressive Democrat’s probable victory comes at the expense of the longstanding Democratic apparatus in the state, which has essentially controlled all levels of politics, from statewide to county and local races and which the three-term House member has had great success railing against throughout his bid.

“I like to joke that if people have this perception in their mind of a so-called political machine, Andy looks and sounds like the exact opposite of that perception,” said Rep. Brendan Boyle (D-Pa.), a friend of Kim’s whose North Philadelphia district borders Burlington County. “Given the unique circumstances around this Senate seat, Andy looking and sounding like a nice, well meaning guy who is honest and sincere — that contrast helps him a great deal.” 

Kim highlighted his grassroots message with a lawsuit seeking to end the “county line,” or the practice of listing candidates supported by county parties in a single row on the ballot. Unendorsed candidates are shown further down the ballot, putting them at a marked disadvantage.

The “county line” was expected to be a major boon for Murphy, especially in voter-rich north Jersey counties. The wife of Gov. Phil Murphy (D) was the preferred candidate of party bosses who have wielded power for years. 

However, the first lady was dealt a blow early last week when New Jersey Attorney General Matthew Platkin (D), who was appointed to the post by the governor, declared that he believes the ballot system is unconstitutional and he would no longer defend the practice in court. Murphy lightly pointed to that ongoing fight while announcing her decision to leave the race. 

“It is clear to me that continuing in this race will involve waging a very divisive and negative campaign, which I am not willing to do,” she said. “[W]ith Donald Trump on the ballot and so much at stake for our nation, I will not in good conscience waste resources tearing down a fellow Democrat.”

Murphy’s decision also came amid signs of strength for Kim. 

On top of his repeated strong showings in polls, he scored a key victory in the Monmouth County Democratic Convention in early February, defeating Murphy by 18 percentage points. The win, which came where the first lady has lived for decades and in a slice of Kim’s district, essentially laid down the gauntlet for the rest of the campaign as his support from the grassroots swelled. 

“That was the whole ballgame,” one source close to the Kim campaign told The Hill. “The grassroots were the personification that was fed up with machine politics. You saw that in the county conventions and you saw that with Andy’s message … His momentum was palpable.”

“You see the culmination of a really bad idea coming to fruition: that [Gov. Murphy] could use the county line in the last two years of his administration to strongarm all the most populous counties into putting Tammy in the Senate,” the source continued. “And that was a massive political miscalculation.”

Even those in the Murphys’ orbit admit that the optics of the situation did not do the first lady any favors.

“It was a backflow from the Tammy campaign, which took on the appearance of inheritance or succession. That wasn’t enough to keep eyes riveted on [her] candidacy,” said Jim McQueeney, a former chief of staff to former Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) who worked for the Murphys’ foundation for three years. “[Democratic committee members] looked to the left and right a little more to see what was out there, and when they looked … they saw Kim, who was out there. Credit to him. He was out there.”

While awaiting a decision on the lawsuit, Kim has ironically become the beneficiary of the state’s ballot set-up. He confirmed to reporters after Murphy’s exit that county leaders asked him to step in for her on their county line slots, which he accepted. He has maintained that he will move forward with the suit, saying it’s “not a system I want to participate in.”

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He still faces two other candidates in the June primary, but is widely expected to clinch the nomination.  

“Everybody’s moment looks a little lucky, but it takes an extraordinary amount of hard work and self-knowledge that this is who I am and this is what I want to do to get here,” one Democratic operative with New Jersey ties said. “I don’t think another politician could have done this who is not Andy Kim.”

“And frankly, there’s a reason why nobody else tried,” the operative added.

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