Andy Kim is making a big bet on breaking New Jersey Democratic politics - Living Strong Television Network
Andy Kim is making a big bet on breaking New Jersey Democratic politics

Andy Kim is trying to do something rare in New Jersey politics: win by casting himself as a soft-spoken outsider.

In a state known for its brass-knuckle campaign tactics, its machine-dominated politics and no shortage of characters tainted by dubious ethics or outright corruption, he’s betting voters will see his run for Senate as something entirely new.

“I get it, I’m not central casting of what someone imagines a New Jersey Democrat or politician looking like,” Kim said in an interview with POLITICO. “That’s what I thought would be my biggest weakness, but it’s actually turned out to be my biggest strength.”

And, so far, it seems to be working.

Kim announced his upstart bid on Twitter after consulting only his wife. He quickly excited an online community tired of corruption in politics, and recent FEC filings reveal he now has at least $2 million in the bank for his five-week old campaign. Meanwhile, recently indicted Sen. Bob Menendez‘s popularity is cratering — Kim trounces him in a head-to-head by 50 points, according to a poll released this month.

“It shows what I’m capable of,” Kim said.

But he’s about to meet the buzzsaw of the New Jersey political machine.

Already, the state party establishment, which was miffed by his swift move to get in the race ahead of the November legislative elections, seems to be entertaining getting behind Tammy Murphy, the wife of Gov. Phil Murphy. Both are alums of Goldman Sachs and have deep ties to the political power brokers in the state. Several other members of Congress also haven’t ruled out a bid.

The coming months could provide a classic sort of political showdown, featuring an upstart trying to harness outsider excitement in a state known for insider dealmaking.

Kim, who is of Korean descent, is no stranger to the New Jersey’s Democratic Party establishment. He was endorsed by Murphy in his congressional runs and was backed by Presidents Barack Obama and Joe Biden. But a statewide run is an entirely different beast and New Jersey Democrats do not take kindly to candidates who jump ahead of its political machinery.

Menendez, who was not made available for this story, has not said whether or not he’ll seek another six-year term, though party leaders are in talks about booting him from the party-backed section of the ballot should he move forward with a campaign. The first lady, who was her husband’s lead fundraiser for his reelection campaign, is not expected to make a formal decision until after the legislative elections on Nov. 7. She is, however, in talks with power brokers around the state.

A confidant for Murphy projected confidence that the first lady would be a formidable obstacle for Kim to overcome, should she enter the contest.

“Andy Kim doesn’t have support in North Jersey, doesn’t have support of our northern chairs,” the person said, pointing out that many Democratic insiders know about primary maneuvering in the state.

“If the chair doesn’t like you, they can put you in ballot Siberia,” the person added.

The county line system, unique to New Jersey and perfectly legal, allows party leaders in 19 of its 21 counties to endorse candidates of their liking. The candidates, in turn, get favored ballot positions under the “county line,” or slate of party-backed candidates.

“Just the structure of it, I think, is wholly inequitable,” said Uyen Khong, executive director of Action Together New Jersey, a progressive advocacy group that champions greater ballot access. Khong, who has worked as an informal advisor to Kim on previous campaigns, adds there are “two different systems” Kim will have to navigate: one wooing party bosses and the second, winning over Democratic primary voters.

Securing the coveted “line,” as it’s known locally, in one place doesn’t carry over to another county: a ballot in Bergen County in the north could vary greatly from a ballot in Gloucester in South Jersey.

“In essence, it allows party bosses to rig the ballot in favor of their preferred candidates,” said James Solomon, a Jersey City Council member who has spoken out against the use of county line voting in the state.

It’s virtually impossible to win in New Jersey without the full backing of the state party. One of the most poignant examples of that was a decade ago, when Democratic state Sen. Barbara Buono ran for governor against popular Republican incumbent Chris Christie. Buono had her party’s backing on paper, but Christie had developed close relationships with influential leaders and Democrats did not offer her strong financial support. She lost in a landslide and condemned what she called “the last vestiges of old boy machine politics.”

Buono said at the time she felt betrayed by her party’s leaders.

“The Democratic political bosses — some elected, some not — made a deal with this governor despite him representing almost everything they’re against,” she said. “They didn’t do it for the state. They did it to help themselves politically and financially.”

Inside Kim’s camp, there is acknowledgment that the state’s party bosses could work against him. Kim has also advocated for abolishing the county line, but Gov. Murphy in recent weeks has defended the state law, saying it allows “candidates running together to signal to the voters that they share the same beliefs and principles.”

In addition to leaning into his national security experience in the Obama administration to counter Menendez’s charges of acting as a foreign agent, Kim and his allies believe he is on the verge of unlocking the untapped potential of Asian American voters who are energized about his historic candidacy.

“Their energy becomes my energy, and it is something that makes me feel stronger, makes me feel more confident that this was the right decision,” Kim said. “I’m excited that I’m a son of immigrants, married to an immigrant, that has a real shot of representing my state in the United States Senate. That’s humbling.”

New Jersey has the largest Asian American Pacific Islander population on the East Coast, making up 10 percent of the population, and the third highest percent in the country behind Hawaii and California, according to the Census.

“They’re a really strong voting bloc in New Jersey, that I don’t think has actually quite come into their voting power just yet,” said Roshni Nedungadi, founding partner and chief research officer at HIT Strategies, a liberal-leaning polling firm.

Somerset, Hudson and Middlesex Counties — all counties outside Kim’s 3rd congressional district — have the largest concentration of AAPI residents in the state, according to Census data. In Middlesex alone, those who identify as AAPI make up more than a quarter of all residents, giving his campaign promising territory to mine.

“Obviously given the high profile nature of this race, I think that AAPI’s are going to step up to the plate and really perform,” said Varun Nikore, executive director of AAPI Victory Alliance, a progressive group dedicated to mobilizing Asian American and Pacific Islander voters. Kim has already received financial backing from former New York City mayoral candidate Andrew Yang.

“He can win statewide in New Jersey on the same basis as the state is tired of corruption in its leaders, and Andy is as upright as they come,” Yang said in an interview.

Kim has also conducted outreach to this community in the past. In 2021, he started a political action committee to help AAPI candidates in the wake of the Atlanta-area spa shooting in which six of eight victims were Asian.

But his PAC has raised just $81,000 since his launch and has not endorsed a single candidate. Kim said it’s hard to focus on raising money for others amid the demands of his own campaigns. His races have been close — he won his 2022 race by 32,000 votes — but redistricting in the state has made them easier to win since his narrow 2018 victory.

Kim’s road to the nomination will be daunting, especially for someone who is representing southern New Jersey, which is less dense than the urban centers outside of New York City.

“It’s gonna be really difficult for him to get the party leader support he’s going to need in North Jersey,” says one Democratic operative granted anonymity to discuss internal party deliberations.

“People like him,” they operative added, “but does that translate to statewide, superstar status? It’s hard to say.”

Dustin Racioppi contributed to this report.

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