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Key vote in U.S. Senate race should lead Dem insiders to revisit their coronation plans

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Key vote in U.S. Senate race should lead Dem insiders to revisit their coronation plans

Feb 12, 2024 | 7:21 am ET
By Terrence T. McDonald
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Key vote in U.S. Senate race should lead Dem insiders to revisit their coronation plans
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A supporter of First Lady Tammy Murphy and supporters of Rep. Andy Kim gather in Long Branch on Feb. 10, 2024, for a key vote in this year's U.S. Senate contest. (Photo by New Jersey Monitor)

An early test of where the enthusiasm is in this year’s U.S. Senate race was Saturday, and the first lady flopped.

It was the Monmouth County Democratic convention, where the county’s Democratic committee people gathered at the Portuguese Club of Long Branch on Broadway to decide who to support in this year’s U.S. Senate primary, a four-way contest that includes front-runners Rep. Andy Kim (D-03) and First Lady Tammy Murphy.

This is home turf for Murphy, who lives on an estate a few miles away with her husband, Gov. Phil Murphy (perhaps you’ve heard of him). Her final pitch to Monmouth Democrats — each candidate had a few minutes to sell themselves to the crowd of roughly 500 — was peppered with references meant to remind locals that she lives in Monmouth County, and Kim doesn’t.

“How many of you out there have not kicked off the summer running the Spring Lake 5 or the Ridge Road 5K, or been at the PNC in the bowl dancing to some show?” Murphy asked the crowd. “Alongside many of you, I have worked at the Soul Kitchen, I’ve worked at Lunch Break, I’ve done beach sweeps at Seven Presidents.”

Didn’t work. The out-of-towner prevailed, with Kim winning 265 votes to Murphy’s 181, giving Kim the support of Monmouth Democrats and, most importantly, advantageous placement on the June primary ballot. Insiders call it the line, and if you want to win a primary in New Jersey, you want to be on the line.

The news out of Monmouth is bad for Murphy, but not exactly devastating; she’s getting the line in Camden, Hudson, and Passaic counties, and probably in Essex, too — not, I should note, because the party’s members voted like in Monmouth, but because party bigwigs in those counties said so. Those counties have a lot of Democrats, so Saturday’s big fail could be only a blip.

But Kim’s victory in Monmouth portends something dangerous for Murphy and for her party: party leaders largely back Murphy, but rank-and-file Democrats may prefer Kim. Dangerous for her because if there’s little genuine enthusiasm for Murphy, what happens when voters go to their polling places in June? Dangerous for her party because if Murphy wins June’s primary entirely because Dem insiders rig the game for her, what happens in November when the U.S. Senate race has a Democrat people don’t want to vote for?

Kim certainly sees it this way.

Key vote in U.S. Senate race should lead Dem insiders to revisit their coronation plans
Rep. Andy Kim speaking to Monmouth County Democrats after winning their convention in Long Branch on Feb. 10, 2024. (Photo by New Jersey Monitor)

“What I think this very clearly does is shows that there’s nothing inevitable about this race, there’s nothing inevitable. There’s no sense that anybody is destined to be able to win this thing and this confirms what I’ve always felt, which is that we’re the campaign that has the momentum, that we’re the campaign that has the energy,” he told reporters Saturday.

This is giving me flashbacks to Michigan in 2016. Hillary Clinton was in the middle of her coronation as the Democratic Party’s choice to run for president, and was leading Sen. Bernie Sanders in every poll in Michigan … then when primary voters decided, Sanders edged Clinton by about a point. That should have been a warning for Democrats that Clinton was in danger in places where Democrats should not be in danger, but the party nominated her anyway and she lost Michigan again that November to Donald Trump.

Sharper minds than mine can expound on the line and why it leads to unfair primary elections. But if we’re not going to implement a fairer ballot for this race, party leaders should use Saturday’s results to revisit whether they want to hand this race to Tammy Murphy, or allow more of the party’s members to have a say in the contest. Democrats talk a big game about protecting democracy nationwide when Trump is their target — they should wage the same kind of fight here in New Jersey.