NJ’s first lady Tammy Murphy is running for U.S. Senate. Expect a ton of Democratic support.

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By Dan Sears

Tammy Murphy — the wife of New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy — announced her 2024 run for the U.S. Senate early Wednesday. She’s looking to replace fellow Democrat Sen. Bob Menendez, who is accused in a federal indictment of bribery and corruption.

A source close to Murphy’s campaign said she’ll soon receive key endorsements from many of New Jersey’s Democratic county organization leaders — which would afford her strong financial and institutional support, and favored placement on primary ballots under a system known as the “county line.” The source would only speak anonymously, since those endorsements hadn’t yet been announced.

Murphy, 58, has never run for elected office but has been involved in her husband’s administration. She shows up at events, speaks regularly and raises campaign cash for candidates at every level of the political spectrum.

She’s long championed maternal health and spearheaded Nurture NJ, a statewide initiative the administration credits with reducing maternal deaths among women of color. She also met with educators across the state to help revise student learning standards to include climate change and sustainability education.

“These weren’t small fights or simple problems to solve, but nothing worth doing ever is,” Murphy said in a written statement released on Wednesday as she announced her campaign. “As I look around the country, there’s so much more to do, and we need a senator who will work every single day to lower the cost of living, protect abortion rights, end the gun violence epidemic and defend our democracy.”

In New Jersey, most counties’ primary ballots use a design called the “county line” that groups all the candidates endorsed by the party in one place. Lesser-known candidates are paired with better-known candidates, like those running for president. No other state in the country has the same system.

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In the runup to the governor’s first election in 2017, the Murphys made donations to many of the Democratic county party organizations, and Phil Murphy received the line in every county that uses the system.

Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Poll, expects the same this time around.

“[Tammy Murphy is] going to be able to bring in money for these county Democratic organizations and that’s going to play a significant role in determining who their top choice is going to be for the nomination,” Murray said.

This will bother reform-minded voters, he said, but not enough to sink her candidacy.

“Both things can be true here. She has shown to those who have been following politics inside Trenton that she is a significant force within the administration. She’s not just somebody who has pet projects, but somebody who has been sitting at the table for some key policy issues,” Murray said.

Other political analysts say it’s an oversimplification that it is merely money that buys support from party bosses. It’s also the relationships formed by showing up for local events and taking calls.

“The work that she’s done with her husband, the partnership that she’s had, the relationships that they’ve built — I think that’s absolutely a formidable position for her to be in,” said Micah Rasmussen, director of Rider University’s Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics.

Rasmussen said he thinks Tammy Murphy will face a tough fight from Rep. Andy Kim, who announced his bid for the Senate seat a day after Menendez was indicted on charges that he took lavish bribes to serve Egyptian government interests and to interfere with criminal prosecutions in New Jersey.

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Kim, a Democrat from Burlington, was elected to the U.S. House in the 2018 blue wave. He was formerly a national security official with the Obama administration.

Kim is also the only announced candidate besides Murphy with a significant history of garnering party support or fundraising. Progressive activist Larry Hamm has filed to run in the Democratic primary, but is generally regarded as a long shot — he got just 11% of the vote in a primary race against Cory Booker in 2020. Quadir Selby, another candidate, got just 8% of the vote in his own previous primary run for the 28th District state Senate seat.

Menendez hasn’t said if he’ll run in 2024, but he’s lost the support of Democratic leaders, many of whom called for him to resign the same day he was indicted. Menendez has refused to step down.

In an opinion column for the Star-Ledger, writer Tom Moran quoted Rutgers University professor Ross K. Baker, a Senate historian who called the first lady’s candidacy “nepotism on stilts.” And the New York Times pointed out that Murphy was a registered Republican until 2014.

Some progressive Democrats have already spoken out against the Murphy candidacy.

“I’m a big fan of Andy Kim and what I see as his anticorruption approach to Jersey politics,” said Elizabeth Redwine, a member of the Essex County Democratic Committee. “Tammy Murphy just feeds this idea of nepotism and makes it harder to get young people voting, which is what I’m always trying to do.”

Kim told NJ.com’s Mosaic this week he’d stay in the race even if Murphy announced a run, and even if she ultimately gets the county lines.

“I believe that I can give the party an opportunity to have a fresh start and to recommit itself to this idea that democracy is for everyone to participate, and not just those who have connections or a lot of money. That this is something for all of us,” Kim told Mosaic.

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Harry Hurley, a conservative talk show host at WPG Talk Radio 95.5 in Atlantic City, described Tammy Murphy as “New Jersey all the way.”

“She won’t be looked at as a carpetbagger,” Hurley told Gothamist. “And I don’t even believe [critics are] going to say anything about nepotism because as first lady, she has been extremely consequential.”

Hurley describes himself as a friend of Gov. Phil Murphy, and that friendship extends to the first lady, despite differences over policy.

“Although obviously in a portion of New Jersey, people feel that he’s too liberal [but] he’s thought of well — he’s extremely likable,” Hurley said of the governor. “It’ll be absolutely a power couple on steroids times infinity. How strong they will be.”

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