New Jersey First Lady Tammy Murphy enters US Senate race to replace Menendez

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New Jersey First Lady Tammy Murphy, who has taken an active role in helping govern the state, is running in the 2024 Democratic U.S. Senate primary to replace the indicted U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez.

The 58-year-old former Republican is the second major Democratic figure to declare her candidacy, following Rep. Andy Kim (D-N.J.). But she instantly becomes the frontrunner thanks not just to her husband’s position as governor but her long list of contacts with party leaders, for whom she’s spent the last six years as a prolific fundraiser.

Murphy did not name Menendez specifically, but she included his image in part of her video launch decrying Capitol politics.

“Right now Washington is filled with too many people more interested in getting rich or getting on camera than getting things done for you,” she said.

Menendez, who’s facing extensive federal charges of bribery and acting as an unregistered foreign agent for the Egyptian government, has not said whether he plans to seek reelection but hinted at it Friday, saying in a statement that he is “used to tough fights and next year won’t be any different.” Menendez, who has pleaded not guilty to all charges, also took a vague swipe at Tammy Murphy last month, saying that if she runs “she’ll have to deal with a lot of baggage.”

But while Menendez won reelection by 10 points in 2018 a year after beating previous corruption charges with a hung jury, his popularity has cratered in New Jersey, with an October poll showing his favorability at just 8 percent.

Tammy Murphy, who grew up in Virginia, has said she was a Republican until the mid-2000s, when she began considering herself a Democrat due to her views on abortion, guns and the environment — issues she highlighted in her campaign announcement. The New York Times reported earlier this month that she voted in a Republican primary as recently as 2014, which was after her husband’s time as Democratic National Committee finance chair and U.S. ambassador to Germany in the Obama administration.

Signs appeared that Tammy Murphy would be more involved in her husband’s administration than most of her predecessors shortly after Phil Murphy was sworn into office in 2018, when the administration transformed a conference room down the hall from the governor’s office into a private office for her.

Tammy Murphy, who has four grown children, made maternal mortality her chief cause, highlighting New Jersey’s relatively high maternal death rate and how Black women were nearly seven times as likely as white women to die from childbirth-related complications. Her campaign noted that New Jersey has moved its national ranking for maternal deaths from 47th to 27th during her “Nurture NJ” initiative.

Murphy focused on that in her campaign video, acknowledging that she didn’t have to worry about surviving childbirth or the level of care for her newborns because of built-in advantages she had.

“The money in our family’s bank account, and frankly, the color of my skin meant I could get the best care available,” she said. “But that’s not the case for a lot of women.”

Murphy also highlighted her work on the environment, specifically making New Jersey the first in the nation to incorporate climate change into school curriculum.

Politically, Tammy Murphy has been one of the New Jersey Democratic Party’s top fundraisers, helping her develop relationships with party bosses who hold sway over county party endorsements. Those endorsements could award Murphy “the line” in most counties — a unique feature of ballot design in New Jersey that allows county party-endorsed candidates to run in primaries in the same column or row as every other country-endorsed candidate, from town council to president.

Murphy’s entry into the race wasn’t greeted with enthusiasm by some progressives, who saw it as nepotism and somewhat ironic, considering that Menendez had paved the way for his own son to be elected to the House of Representatives more than a year before his indictment.

Tammy Murphy has also faced controversy over her role in leading a political nonprofit called Stronger Fairer Forward that promotes her husband’s policies and has refused press requests to publicly release its donors. She and her husband also faced criticism early in the governor’s first term for poor living and playing conditions for the women’s soccer team they co-own, then called Sky Blue. Tammy Murphy pledged to improve conditions for the team, which changed its name to Gotham FC and last week won its league championship.

Kim has already won support from some of the groups on the party’s left flank. But Murphy’s campaign is expected to take advantage of the party infrastructure as well as her policy achievements that appeal to Black voters, who make up a big portion of the Democratic Party’s base.

In addition to Kim, left-wing activist Lawrence Hamm, who unsuccessfully challenged Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) in 2020, is also seeking the Democratic nomination. Kyle Jasey, a real estate lender from Jersey City and son of Assemblymember Mila Jasey (D-Essex), had filed to run for Senate but on Monday night announced he would drop out of the race to instead challenge Menendez’s son, U.S. Rep. Rob Menendez (D-N.J.).

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