It all happened in rapid succession. The Department of Justice indicted Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) for receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars, gold bars and other bribes on Friday morning.
A few hours later, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D) and the state’s Democratic Party called on Menendez to resign, prompting Democrats across the country to abandon him in droves. And on Saturday, U.S. Rep. Andy Kim, a three-term incumbent who flipped a South Jersey seat, announced plans to challenge Menendez in the Democratic primary. Kim, the son of Korean immigrants, would be New Jersey’s first Asian American senator.
Menendez, who insists on his innocence, has made clear that he isn’t going anywhere for now, though few believe he will survive a primary, should it come to that.
Now comes the hard part: a potentially contentious battle for succession in a state with a bare-knuckles political culture where campaigns are expensive and there is no shortage of aspiring young Democrats or regional rivalries.
“We really depict the ‘Game of Thrones’ politics,” a veteran South Jersey Democratic strategist, who requested anonymity for professional reasons, said of the Garden State’s politics. “We’re in a pretty tight world. A lot of these fiefdoms have a lot of different maneuvers.”
Kim is, thus far, the only Democrat to throw his hat in the ring. He already has the backing of two national Democratic groups: End Citizens United, which focuses on campaign finance reform, and VoteVets, which commissioned a poll that showed Kim performing well against Menendez. Kim, a former State Department official who served as a civilian adviser to top generals in Afghanistan, received VoteVets’ endorsement in 2022.
“He was really smart getting out first,” said Brigid Callahan Harrison, chair of the political science department at Montclair State University and a former Democratic congressional candidate. “He’s clearly built a groundswell of support. He’s very popular in his district and showed some political courage [being] willing to take that leap out front.”
“Because we’re a blue state, people wait their entire careers for the opportunity to move into the next position.”
If he maintains his momentum, Kim, who is also likely to get the support of the bloc of county Democratic parties in South Jersey, could fast become the race’s front-runner.
“Whoever else wants to get in probably has a window that is not very short, but mid-range short,” the South Jersey Democratic strategist said. “This is something you probably can’t sit around and say, ‘I want to think about [it] over the holidays.’”
Running statewide in New Jersey is a costly endeavor. Candidates must purchase TV ads in both the New York City and Philadelphia media markets. The costs associated with a campaign and the high density of finance and pharmaceutical executives populating the state’s affluent suburbs have made the state something of a national leader in self-funding candidates, of whom Gov. Murphy, a former Goldman Sachs executive, is just the latest.
Critically then, for Kim, both End Citizens United and VoteVets have independent expenditure arms that would enable them to raise and spend unlimited sums on his behalf. Kim has also transferred about $900,000 in campaign money to his Senate account.
That will come in handy if the Democratic primary field gets more crowded, which some analysts believe is inevitable.
Menendez has served in the Senate since January 2006, when ex-Goldman Sachs executive Jon Corzine, who vacated the seat after winning the governorship, appointed him to it. And Kim is not the only promising Democrat on the state’s bench with ambitions for higher office.
“Because we’re a blue state, people wait their entire careers for the opportunity to move into the next position,” Harrison said.
Two of Kim’s peers in the House, Reps. Mikie Sherrill and Josh Gottheimer, both from the northern part of the state, have come up frequently as potential rivals in the race to take on Menendez. Sherrill, however, ruled out a run on Friday.
Both members of Congress had been considering gubernatorial runs. Gov. Murphy, who was narrowly reelected in 2021, will be termed out in 2025. Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop — like Murphy and Corzine, a Goldman Sachs alum — entered the race to succeed him in April.
Switching to a Senate race could be alluring to either Sherrill or Gottheimer, however. For example, state law prohibits them from rolling over their congressional campaign funds for a gubernatorial race.
But Gottheimer, like Sherrill, has effectively ruled out a Senate run. He has his sights firmly set on the governor’s mansion. “He is intent on running for governor,” someone close to the lawmaker told HuffPost.
Sherrill and Gottheimer’s refusal to even hint at interest in the Senate race has created a void for northern and central New Jersey powerbrokers who would prefer to see one of their own in the seat, rather than Kim, a South Jersey native.
“It seems like a reverse standoff between Gottheimer and Mikie Sherrill where each of them would want the other to run for Senate and somewhat clear the path, but they don’t seem to want to do that.”
Ordinarily, New Jersey Democrats’ old-fashioned network of county party organizations, labor unions and backroom political bosses could be expected to broker a deal between Sherrill and Gottheimer that might divide up the Senate and gubernatorial races in order to avoid an unsightly traffic jam in the party’s talent pipeline.
With a few exceptions, county parties control what’s known as the ballot line, ensuring that only candidates whom the party endorses appear in the first column of primary voters’ ballots in each of the state’s 21 counties. That gives them considerable leverage to influence individual candidates eager to appear in the column that many voters opt for by default.
It is still early in the process, but Garden State Democrats’ political machine has not yet kicked into gear enough to resolve the impasse between Gottheimer and Sherrill.
“It seems like a reverse standoff between Gottheimer and Mikie Sherrill where each of them would want the other to run for Senate and somewhat clear the path, but they don’t seem to want to do that,” said a North Jersey Democratic strategist who requested anonymity for professional reasons. “That’s where the whole Tammy Murphy trial balloon came from.”
Tammy Murphy, Gov. Phil Murphy’s wife, joined the mix earlier this week when it emerged that she was seriously considering allies’ entreaties to run for Senate.
New Jersey’s first lady is not new to the public eye — or policymaking. A fellow Goldman Sachs alum and former Republican, she has spearheaded the state’s initiative to reduce maternal and infant mortality.
Murphy enjoys strong name recognition and the ability to self-fund. A longtime resident of central Jersey, she could also probably count on the support of Democratic party organizations in the state’s populous central and northern counties.
But she has not emerged entirely unscathed from her highly public role at the governor’s side. Among other controversies, some former female state troopers assigned to guard her have sued Murphy for allegedly denying one trooper access to the family’s carriage house to use for breastfeeding.
It is not clear that a race between Andy Kim and Tammy Murphy would have clear ideological stakes. Murphy would likely benefit from the goodwill that her husband has generated with progressives in the state. But she herself is a former Republican who says she left the party when she became more invested in preserving the environment and protecting abortion rights.
Kim has managed to hold on in what was once a swing seat with his relatively moderate record and a singular focus on constituent services. Unlike Gottheimer, though, who leads a bipartisan bloc of centrists that sometimes stands in the way of liberal priorities, Kim has managed to avoid ruffling the left’s feathers.
In a matchup with Murphy, he might try to capitalize on resentment over her ability to self-fund.
That line of attack, however, has a spotty history of success in New Jersey. “The same thing could have also been said about Corzine, and it was. The same thing could have been said about her husband, and it was,” Harrison said.
If Menendez eventually resigns, Gov. Murphy would have the power to appoint a temporary replacement. And in that case, he would likely come under pressure not to simply select his wife and thereby grant her the advantage of incumbency in a competitive primary.
“It would be an unpopular decision to appoint her,” Harrison said.
But Menendez has given no indication that he plans to resign, which comes as no surprise to seasoned Garden State politics watchers. Staying in the Senate provides Menendez with two key advantages: leverage over prosecutors, who may accept his resignation as part of an eventual deal; and the opportunity to use his campaign account to raise money for his defense, which is legal under federal law.
As of the end of June, Menendez had over $7.8 million in his campaign account. He may need more, however. He has retained the undoubtedly expensive services of Abbe Lowell, a renowned criminal defense attorney whose roster of current clients includes Hunter Biden.
Rather than expect Menendez to step down, Murphy and other top New Jersey Democrats hoped that a coordinated effort to disown him would limit the political exposure of Democratic candidates running in state legislative races this November, according to the North Jersey Democratic strategist.
No one seriously expects Menendez to win if he remains on the ballot ahead of the June 2024 primary. The very New Jersey political machine that helped Menendez ascend as mayor of Union City, and more recently coordinated the rapid calls for him to resign, would make sure of that.
“History repeats itself in this type of work,” said the South Jersey Democratic strategist.
And if a defeated Menendez is spiteful enough, he might also run as an independent, which could undermine support for the Democratic nominee against Van Drew or another GOP contender.
It’s a hypothetical scenario outlined by David Wildstein, a former aide to then-New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) and current editor-in-chief of the New Jersey Globe.
“In New Jersey, anything is possible,” Wildstein wrote in a Wednesday column.