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New Jersey Democrats revolt against party leaders in race to replace Menendez

The anti-establishment sentiment that was evident in the last Senate election is now becoming an early and dominant theme in the primary between Murphy and his primary opponent, Republican Rep. Andy Kim, who announced his candidacy the day after Menendez’s indictment seeking to convey a message of reform. On Saturday, the three-term congresswoman notched a key victory demonstrating that her message is getting through, handily defeating Murphy in her home county during New Jersey’s first Democratic nominating convention.

“I think there is a real revolt within the ranks of the Democratic Party,” said former Democratic Sen. Robert Torricelli. “Tammy Murphy, who holds no public office, is now a symbol of the establishment. And there is some admiration that Kim was the first to come forward to challenge Menendez.

The race has taken on implications that extend beyond the two candidates themselves. Years of pent-up frustration with this Jersey-exclusive system have burst into public discourse like never before. To critics, Murphy represents a broken establishment, while “Andy Kim is a cause,” said one party member who was granted anonymity to speak candidly.

Murphy campaign spokesperson Alex Altman said “Tammy is excited to continue to engage in Monmouth County as she does with all communities around (the) state to build a broad coalition and win the support of New Jersey voters.”

Kim’s campaign declined to comment, but after Saturday’s convention he said the results “confirmed what I’ve always thought: We are the campaign that has the momentum.”

The signs announcing the arrival of this revolt had been there for years. During his last corruption trial in 2017, New Jersey Democratic leaders stood by Menendez en masse, giving no oxygen to Democrats ready to challenge him. Menendez had the support of the party establishment virtually everywhere, but in his 2018 primary, Lisa McCormick, an unknown Democrat, won 38% of the vote, carrying several counties in clear protest over the mistrial of his trial . Nonetheless, Menendez – who ran during a year of anti-Trump wave – managed to comfortably win re-election at large.

New Jersey’s county political chairmen have long been able to weigh primaries in favor of their chosen candidates thanks to the state’s unique ballot design system. When parties assign the “county line” to candidates, they place them in a column or row with every other party-backed candidate, from the president of the United States to the lowly city council member.

Candidates not supported by the party apparatus can sometimes find themselves in “electoral Siberia”. Some counties, such as Monmouth on the Jersey Shore, award the line at open conventions by secret ballot. Others assign them largely based on the influence of one or a handful of party leaders, such as Passaic County in North Jersey, which assigned its line to Murphy based votes from mostly Democratic municipal chairmen of the county’s 16 towns.

Murphy’s playbook for blocking key organizational support is familiar: Her husband used it to go from virtual unknown to frontrunner in 2017. He spent about $250,000 on local parties over the two years leading up to the primary and contributed more than $16 million from his personal funds. fortune in the nominating contest, eclipsing his rivals while securing key county support.

In 2021, progressives filed a constitutional challenge to the county redistricting system in federal court. But the case moved slowly, and Kim’s campaign gained the upper hand, signing a letter to party leaders and county election officials along with two other Democratic Senate candidates — Patricia Campos-Medina and Lawrence Hamm — urging them to abandon the line. in favor of the office block voting system used by other states.

“It’s no longer just about the maligned progressives and the activist wing of the party,” said Antoinette Miles, interim director of the New Jersey Working Families Party, lead plaintiff in the county line lawsuit. “There is a broader coalition of people who are responding to the political status quo in New Jersey.”

Torricelli speculated that this primary could spell the death knell, or at least presage a major change, in the way New Jersey primaries have been conducted for decades. “It could actually bring down the county redistricting system,” he said, suggesting there could be pressure for other counties to at least open up their nominating processes.

Uyen “Winn” Khuong, a progressive organizer, said county conventions like Monmouth that have secret ballots give rank-and-file Democrats a chance to express their preference without worrying about backlash.

“From all the tea I got from the county committee members, they felt compelled to say publicly that they would support (Murphy),” said Khuong, who is not affiliated with protesting the corruption and high pressure tactics, but who nevertheless re-registers as an MP. Democrats will vote in party primaries. “Publicly, they felt obligated to vote one way, but in a secret vote, they chose another path. »

The Monmouth convention is far from being the only sign of revolt against the Democratic machine.

The only public poll of the Senate campaign so far showed Kim leading Murphy by 12 points. Murphy outperformed Kim, taking in $3.2 million last quarter, compared to Kim’s $1.7 million. But Kim’s campaign has tapped a vast network of donors, with more than 90 percent of donors giving less than $100, compared to about half that of Murphy.

Even Murphy supporters acknowledge a gap in enthusiasm between the two candidates.

A Democratic operative described the attitude of high-ranking Democrats at the New Jersey League of Municipalities convention in Atlantic City — one of the state’s largest political events — when the recently announced Murphy won the support from party leaders in the state’s most Democratic vote. -rich counties.

“No one really liked it. It’s just to them, publicly, that Andy Kim wasn’t worth fighting with the governor,” said the operative, who was granted anonymity to speak candidly. “I don’t think any of them will be upset if Tammy loses the primary.”

Daniel Han contributed to this report.

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