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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Andy Kim wins Democratic Senate primary in New Jersey; Rob Menéndez survives challenge

Rep. Andy Kim (D-N.J.), a Democratic candidate for Senate, speaks to reporters in Princeton, N.J., June 4, 2024. Kim won a decisive victory in the Democratic Senate primary in New Jersey on Tuesday, beating two other candidates and setting up what could be a lively general election campaign in the fall. (Hannah Beier/The New York Times)

By Tracey Tully and Elise Young

Rep. Andy Kim, a lawmaker who has turned New Jersey politics on its head since entering the race to unseat Sen. Bob Menendez, won the Democratic nomination for Senate on Tuesday after a campaign marked by a watershed ballot-access ruling.

The victory makes Kim, 41, a favorite to become New Jersey’s next senator. He would be the first Korean American to be elected to the U.S. Senate.

“I’m humbled by the results,” Kim said at Terhune Orchards in Princeton, where his supporters had gathered to celebrate. “This has been a very challenging and difficult race, a very dramatic one at that, and one that frankly has changed New Jersey politics forever.”

The results, announced by The Associated Press minutes after polls closed, capped a tumultuous campaign that began a day after Menendez, a Democrat, was accused in September of being at the center of an international bribery scheme.

The senator’s criminal case thrust his son, Rep. Rob Menendez, 38, into a suddenly competitive race for reelection to a second term. But the younger Menendez managed to hold on, winning a Democratic primary over Ravi Bhalla, the mayor of Hoboken, New Jersey, by a decisive margin.

“This is about showing that you’re resilient in the face of challenges,” an exuberant Rob Menendez told supporters crowded into a beer hall in Jersey City, New Jersey.

“Whatever questions people had about me,” he added, “we answered them tonight. We earned this election.”

Kim, a former member of the National Security Council who advised President Barack Obama on Iraq, was first elected to Congress in 2018 — one of four Democrats that year to flip a New Jersey district from red to blue after Donald Trump was elected president.

For months, his main Senate opponent had been Tammy Murphy, the wife of Gov. Philip Murphy. Tammy Murphy, a first-time candidate, was bombarded by accusations of nepotism and dropped out of the race in March after failing to connect with voters.

Kim’s victory Tuesday came as Bob Menendez, 70, was in his fourth week of a federal trial in Manhattan, defending himself against some of the most serious charges ever leveled against a sitting member of Congress.

The senator did not compete for the Democratic nomination, but on Monday he took steps to have his name imprinted on a ballot at least one more time by filing to run for reelection in November as an independent.

Voters said Tuesday that they were skeptical he had any political future at all.

“He’s done for — he’s not going to win anything,” June Ackermann, 67, a nurse from Freehold, New Jersey, said. She said she had cast her ballot before Tuesday, during the early voting window, in part because politics had “gone upside-down crazy.”

Ballots were also cast Tuesday in primary elections for president and 11 of the state’s 12 seats in Congress. (A special election will be held in September for the House seat once held by Rep. Donald M. Payne Jr. of Newark, who died in April.)

Many of the races were directly affected by Bob Menendez’s legal trouble, as well as a court decision that changed the rules governing how Democratic candidates would be listed on the state’s primary ballots.

Bhalla had cast Rob Menendez as part of the same broken machine politics that his father has come to embody. But Menendez’s constituents in the 8th Congressional District appeared willing to draw a distinction between father and son. With nearly 80% of the votes tallied, he was ahead of Bhalla by a margin of 54% to 35%.

In the Senate race, Kim’s margin of victory was also decisive. With 71% of the votes tallied, he had more than 75% of the vote, according to the AP. He beat two left-leaning Democrats, Patricia Campos-Medina, who came in second with 16% of the vote, and Larry Hamm, who got about 9%.

Curtis Bashaw, a hotel developer from Cape May, New Jersey, won the Republican primary for U.S. Senate with about 48% of the vote. His nearest competitor, Christine Serrano Glassner, the mayor of Mendham Borough, New Jersey, who had been endorsed by Trump, got 37% of the vote.

Bashaw, 64, a political moderate, will face a tough race against Kim in November.

It has been 52 years since New Jersey voters elected a Republican senator; Democrats hold a 930,000-person registration advantage, and Trump lost to Biden in New Jersey by 16 percentage points in 2020.

Bob Menendez’s entry into November’s race as an independent has the potential to offer Republicans a boost, however, by fracturing the Democratic vote. Mike Berg, a spokesperson for the Republicans’ national campaign operation, said Monday that the party was “keeping a close eye on New Jersey.”

The senator’s reasons for running may have little to do with reelection. By remaining in the race, Menendez can continue to collect campaign contributions to supplement the $3.5 million he had on hand as of last month. He has already spent more than $3 million on his current team of lawyers, and the trial is expected to last for at least another four weeks.

The senator is also using his campaign account to pay lawyers representing his wife, Nadine Menendez, who is also charged in the bribery conspiracy and is expected to stand trial this summer.

Kim’s decision to run for the Senate meant that, win or lose, he would have to vacate his House seat in a South Jersey district redrawn after the 2020 census to favor Democrats.

On Tuesday night, a state assemblyman, Herb Conaway, 61, won the Democratic primary to replace him. With 67% of the votes tallied, Conaway was beating his chief rival, Carol Murphy, by a margin of 48% to 25%. He will face Rajesh Mohan, a Republican from Holmdel, in November.

Conaway, a physician who also has a law degree, was first elected in 1997. He was endorsed by several Democratic county organizations. In past years, that would have afforded him a prominent spot on the ballot, known as “the county line.”

But a legal challenge Kim filed in February has fundamentally reshaped electoral politics in New Jersey.

Siding with Kim, a judge ordered Democrats to stop grouping all candidates endorsed by the county political party in a single line on the ballot and to instead present the names of candidates running for each office together.

Rob Menendez was elected to a first term in 2022. He had never held office before then but was able to clear the field on the strength of his father’s connections — even before he announced he was running.

This election, the political landscape was far different. After Bob Menendez was indicted last year, Bhalla, the first Sikh to lead a New Jersey city, jumped into the House race. He emphasized Rob Menendez’s connections to his father and outpaced the congressman in fundraising.

Rob Menendez won the endorsements of the state’s leading Democrats, including the governor, who brought with them a well-oiled party apparatus skilled at getting out the vote.

Brian Stack, a state senator and the mayor of Union City, New Jersey, introduced Rob Menendez at his victory party, noting that the freshman congressman had won — even without the so-called line.

Bhalla, 50, congratulated his opponent, and said that the race itself “shook up the system.”

“This is just the beginning. We move forward and we move forward together,” Bhalla said.

“Tomorrow will be a new day,” he added. “It’s going to be brighter day because we made them work for what they have. And that’s what this is about — making sure that we have a choice.”

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