Tammy Murphy Drops Out of Race for Menendez’s Senate Seat

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Tammy Murphy, New Jersey’s first lady, has ended her run for a U.S. Senate seat now held by the state’s embattled senior senator, Robert Menendez, she announced on Sunday in a video posted to social media.

Ms. Murphy said that she had concluded that continuing to compete in the Democratic primary against Representative Andy Kim, a third-term congressman from South Jersey, would mean waging a “very divisive and negative campaign.”

She was unwilling to do that, she said, and instead decided to suspend her campaign and to “focus entirely on re-electing President Biden” and other Democrats.

“With Donald Trump on the ballot and so much at stake for our nation, I will not in good conscience waste resources tearing down a fellow Democrat,” she said.

An aide said that Ms. Murphy, the wife of Gov. Philip D. Murphy, held a meeting with county Democratic Party leaders at 2 p.m. on Sunday before making a final decision and notifying her campaign staff members.

Candidates who plan to run in June’s primary are required to file petitions with at least 1,000 signatures by the end of the day on Monday. Ms. Murphy’s decision on the eve of that deadline means that her name will not appear on the primary ballot.

Her exit makes Mr. Kim an odds-on favorite to become New Jersey’s next senator and the first Korean American member of the U.S. Senate.

“Tammy and I both agree that it is critical that we keep this seat, and the Senate, in Democratic control,” Mr. Kim, 41, said in a statement. “Unity is vital. We will continue our efforts to strengthen our democracy in New Jersey, while we come together to stand up against the dangerous agenda pushed by Trump.”

Ms. Murphy, 58, entered the race in November and was instantly endorsed by a coalition of influential Democratic Party leaders, including many whose livelihoods are dependent on the governor, who has nearly two years left in his term. Her bid led to virtually nonstop claims of nepotism by critics, who argued that the governor and Ms. Murphy, a first-time candidate with limited experience, were exploiting New Jersey’s entrenched system of boss politics.

Mr. Kim jumped into the race a day after Mr. Menendez was charged in September with accepting bribes of gold, cash and a Mercedes-Benz in exchange for his political influence. Since then, Mr. Kim has successfully yoked Ms. Murphy’s campaign to what he called the same style of “broken politics” that nurtured and protected Mr. Menendez for decades.

The first independent poll of the race showed Ms. Murphy’s trailing Mr. Kim by 12 percentage points. Other surveys conducted by campaigns and political organizations showed Ms. Murphy, who until 10 years ago was registered to vote as a Republican, even farther behind.

Then, in the midst of the high-stakes primary contest, Mr. Kim filed a lawsuit that directly challenged an essential component of the state’s electoral system — a ballot structure designed to benefit the favored candidates of local political leaders. The practice allows county leaders to bracket their preferred candidates for every office together in a single row or column, a preferential ballot position known in New Jersey as “the line.”

The so-called line can be used to reward or to punish, encouraging fealty from candidates and making it difficult for unendorsed challengers to win.

Last week, Mr. Kim spent more than an hour testifying in court after asking a federal judge to force the state to redesign the ballot before the June 4 primary. Adding fuel to the debate, the state’s attorney general, Matthew J. Platkin, announced a week ago that he, too, considered the state’s ballot structure unconstitutional.

The judge, Zahid N. Quraishi of U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey, is expected to rule on Mr. Kim’s request in the coming weeks.

The lawsuit and Mr. Platkin’s unwillingness to defend the statutes that enable the current ballot design have shaken New Jersey’s politics to its core. Mr. Platkin had been one of the staunchest allies of the first lady and the governor; he worked on Mr. Murphy’s first campaign and served for years as the governor’s top government lawyer before the governor nominated him for attorney general.

Last week, Democratic and Republican legislative leaders who derive much of their power from “the line” said, for the first time, that they were open to reconsidering the ballot design. The move was seen as an effort to forestall a court-ordered end to the practice.

Ms. Murphy’s path to victory was heavily dependent on the institutional support she had amassed from Democratic leaders in the state’s most populous urban counties, and the lawsuit directly undermined her campaign.

Mr. Menendez, 70, announced on Thursday that he would not run for re-election as a Democrat in June’s primary. But Mr. Menendez, who has pleaded not guilty to all 16 charges he faces, left open the possibility of competing in November as an independent — stoking fear among some Democratic leaders that he could siphon votes from their nominee and give Republicans an advantage.

It has been 50 years since New Jersey elected a Republican senator, and registered Democrats outnumber Republicans in the state by nearly one million voters.

But Democrats hoping to retain their slim majority in the Senate have also indicated that there was no room for error, a reality Ms. Murphy seemed to acknowledge in the three-minute video she released on Sunday.

“As we face grave, dangerous threats on the national level, thanks to Donald Trump and far-right extremists,” she said, “it’s time to unify, not divide.”

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