New Jersey’s First Lady To Challenge Bob Menendez In Democratic Senate Primary

Tammy Murphy, who has led a maternal mortality initiative, has both serious advantages and weaknesses as a candidate.

Tammy Murphy, the first lady of New Jersey, announced Wednesday she will challenge indicted Sen. Bob Menendez in the state’s Democratic primary next June.

“Right now, Washington is filled with too many people more interested in getting rich or getting on camera than getting things done for you,” Murphy says in the three-minute video announcing her run.

Murphy, who is married to New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D), joins a Democratic primary field that already includes Rep. Andy Kim and real estate lender Kyle Jasey. Rep. Donald Norcross, whose brother George is both a South Jersey powerbroker and a foe of the Murphy family, is also considering a run.

Tammy Murphy, a former finance professional, met her husband at the storied Wall Street investment bank Goldman Sachs, where they both worked in the late 1980s. Phil Murphy, who rose to an executive position there, would go on to spend nearly $16.4 million of his own funds on his first gubernatorial primary campaign in 2017.

The Murphy family fortune is one of several advantages that she brings to the Democratic Senate primary.

Murphy has already burnished a public profile as an active member of the governor’s campaign and policymaking team. In 2019, she launched Nurture NJ, a state program dedicated to lowering the state’s maternal mortality rate, particularly among Black women. Nurture NJ has developed numerous bills designed to achieve this goal, including legislation that became law in July, creating a state-funded maternal and infant health innovation center in Trenton.

In addition, the Murphy family has strong ties to local power brokers in central and northern New Jersey, parts of the state where Kim, a South Jersey native, is comparably weaker. Chairs of county Democratic Party organizations, whom the Murphys are apparently courting, are particularly influential in the Garden State because of their control over the “ballot line” that decides which Democratic candidates are featured most prominently on the primary ballot.

Murphy has already picked up the endorsement of former Gov. Richard Codey, who cited her active role in her husband’s administration.

“Tammy Murphy showed up in Trenton from Day One and continues to be a presence and a force in this administration,” Codey said in a statement on Thursday. “She spends more time in Trenton than some of the people who were elected and paid to be there.”

Tammy Murphy has been an active and visible member of his campaign and policy teams.
Tammy Murphy has been an active and visible member of his campaign and policy teams.
Ira L. Black - Corbis/Getty Images

But Murphy has significant political vulnerabilities as well. Some Democrats are already up in arms about the idea of the governor’s wealthy spouse potentially swamping Kim, a former State Department official and New Jersey’s first Asian American member of Congress, with her personal wealth.

“I ask myself one question: If she were not married to Phil Murphy, would she be running?” Patricia Kennedy, a South Jersey Democratic activist, told The New York Times in a story about Murphy’s potential bid earlier this month. “The answer is a resounding, ‘No.’”

Murphy was also a registered Republican who voted in Republican primaries until 2014. By that point, however, she had been donating exclusively to Democratic candidates and party committees at the federal level. Her last donation to a Republican group involved in federal elections appears to have been a $5,000 contribution in 2008 to the Republicans for Environmental Protection Political Action Committee.

Murphy has since said that she formally became a Democrat because as the GOP lurched to the right, her support for abortion rights and environmental protection were no longer compatible with Republican Party affiliation.

The Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate in New Jersey has attracted so much attention and interest from candidates because of the relative rarity of an opening for one of the Democratic-leaning state’s two Senate seats.

Rep. Andy Kim (D-N.J.), a former State Department official, is thus far Murphy's most formidable opponent in the Democratic primary race against Sen. Robert Menendez.
Rep. Andy Kim (D-N.J.), a former State Department official, is thus far Murphy's most formidable opponent in the Democratic primary race against Sen. Robert Menendez.
Erin Scott/Associated Press

Federal prosecutors charged Menendez in September with accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars, gold bars and other bribes in exchange for political favors. Menendez has pleaded not guilty and refused calls to resign from Gov. Murphy and other New Jersey Democrats. There are practical reasons for that decision: Menendez could continue raising money to cover legal fees through his campaign fund and possibly leverage his resignation as part of an eventual plea deal for a lighter punishment.

Gov. Murphy would have the power to appoint a temporary replacement for Menendez if he leaves office before his term ends in January 2025. But Phil Murphy has said that if such a situation arises, he is very unlikely to name his wife, Tammy, to the post. Getting appointed to the Senate seat could potentially give her the advantage of incumbency in the Democratic primary, causing consternation among other Democrats in the state.

Menendez has suggested Tammy Murphy’s entrance into the race taints the role Gov. Murphy played in rallying Democrats against him following his indictment.

“They believe they have to answer to nobody,” Mr. Menendez told the Times in a written statement. “But I am confident that the people of New Jersey will push back against this blatant maneuver at disenfranchisement.”

The available polling suggests Menendez has little chance of extending his Senate career. On Wednesday, the Kim campaign released a Public Policy Polling survey showing the incumbent earning just 5% of the vote in a Democratic primary. Kim led the race with 40% of the vote, and Murphy earned 21%. The remaining third of the electorate were undecided.

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