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Tammy Murphy taps Medicare for all to tout progressive credentials in U.S. Senate race

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Tammy Murphy taps Medicare for all to tout progressive credentials in U.S. Senate race

Feb 19, 2024 | 6:03 pm ET
By Nikita Biryukov
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Tammy Murphy taps Medicare for all to tout progressive credentials in U.S. Senate race
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First Lady Tammy Murphy is focusing on a policy loved by progressives in an apparent bid to overcome attacks over her Republican history from rival Rep. Andy Kim. (J. Scott Applewhite/Getty Images and Edwin J. Torres/ NJ Governors Office)

First Lady Tammy Murphy is seeking to burnish her progressive bona fides by backing a “Medicare for all” system and criticizing her chief rival in this year’s U.S. Senate race, Rep. Andy Kim, for not signing on to support the universal health care proposal.

Murphy, wife of Gov. Phil Murphy, attacked Kim over his non-endorsement of Medicare for all legislation during a Sunday night debate hosted by the New Jersey Globe, and continued that line of attack in public statements Monday. Both are Democrats seeking to succeed Sen. Bob Menendez.

“By not supporting Medicare for all or a public option of some sort, what we are doing is we are furthering the inequities that exist in our society … It’s a black and white situation for me,” Murphy said during the debate.

Kim, a member of the House’s progressive caucus, said he does not oppose Medicare for all, a proposal popularized by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders that would erect a publicly funded single-payer health care system resembling Canada’s, but with more limits on private health insurance plans. Kim said he backs expanding health care coverage but isn’t sold that Medicare for all is the way to do it, echoing a stance he’s held since first joining Congress in 2019.

“I’m open to single-payer. I’m open to multi-payer. I think it’s important we don’t close the door on those different options,” he said, adding he believes the country needs universal health care.

Progressives in the nation’s capital have sought to advance Medicare for all for years but have met with no success. Instead, they’ve found resistance within and outside their party.

Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat from California, opposed the plan over its cost and concerns about its effect on individual Americans’ insurance plans, invoking the upheaval seen in the individual insurance market around the enactment of the Affordable Care Act.

In the current congressional session, Washington Democrat Rep. Pramila Jayapal’s Medicare for all proposal has 113 cosponsors.

Moderate Democrats Reps. Josh Gottheimer and Mikie Sherrill haven’t backed the policy. Sen. Cory Booker and Reps. Frank Pallone, Donald Payne, and Bonnie Watson Coleman are the only members of the state’s congressional delegation to sign onto the bill.

According to a Gallup poll from November, a majority of Americans, 59%, said they believe the government should ensure all Americans have health care coverage, but most (54%) favored a system based on private insurance over one operated by the government (44%).

And while other polls have found broader support for single-payer proposals, that support collapses when respondents are told such proposals would likely raise taxes or limit private insurance. Support climbs if a proposal eliminates health care premiums, reduces out-of-pocket costs, or guarantees universal coverage.

Despite Americans’ wariness of single-payer health care, it’s a position that could help Murphy in a primary where she appears at a disadvantage with grassroots Democrats, who last month told Fairleigh Dickinson University pollsters they view Kim as more liberal than the first lady.

“On the actual issues facing us right now, there’s not a lot of daylight between Kim and Murphy, so I think this is an attempt to stake out ‘oh no, I’m the more liberal one. Here’s an issue where I can show where I’m more liberal,’” said Dan Cassino, executive director of the FDU poll. “I think you saw the first lady really reaching for those throughout the debate.”

Steep majorities of rank-and-file Democrats support a move to a single-payer system, and concerns about progressive policy positions driving off general election voters are minimal in a state where Republicans have not won a U.S. Senate seat for more than half a century.

Murphy’s recent focus on Medicare for all — a proposal that has not reached so much as a committee vote in any of the sessions it’s been introduced and faces only a grave in the current congress — could also serve to blunt jabs over her time as a Republican, Cassino said. Murphy is a former Republican who became a Democrat as her husband was preparing to launch his 2017 gubernatorial bid, a fact Kim’s campaign has focused on.

“That’s a pretty damning attack, honestly, if you’re trying to claim a progressive mantle — that you’re the Johnny-come-lately,” Cassino said, adding, “It’s trying to create a counternarrative to that. It’s ‘I’m the real progressive. Andy Kim isn’t even in favor of Medicare for all.’”