Live Updates: Prosecutor in Menendez Bribery Trial Targets Blame-the-Wife Strategy

Christopher Maag

Andy Kim, center, the U.S. representative for New Jersey’s Third Congressional District, is now the favorite to replace Senator Robert Menendez.Credit…Bryan Anselm for The New York Times

Facing federal charges that he accepted bribes, including cash, gold bars and a Mercedes-Benz, Senator Robert Menendez announced on Sept. 22 that he would not resign.

A day later, Andy Kim, a little-known Democratic congressman from southern New Jersey, gathered his top advisers for a conference call. Everyone present assumed that Mr. Kim would announce his intention to challenge Mr. Menendez for his Senate seat.

The question was when.

Zack Carroll, who was Mr. Kim’s campaign manager during his first race for Congress in 2018, told the group that a typical campaign launch takes six weeks. “You don’t upset a two-term incumbent by flying by the seat of your pants,” Mr. Carroll said.

Mr. Kim listened quietly. Then he read aloud his campaign announcement.

“What if I were to announce in three hours?” Mr. Kim said.

The announcement, which Mr. Kim posted on social media that afternoon, kicked off perhaps the luckiest Senate campaign in modern New Jersey history. Over the next six months, Mr. Kim went from underdog to front-runner, outmaneuvering Tammy Murphy, the wife of Gov. Philip D. Murphy, who joined the race in November and quickly won the support of New Jersey’s powerful Democratic Party machine.

In late March, Mr. Menendez said he would not run in the party’s primary. Three days later, Ms. Murphy ended her campaign.

Mr. Kim, who easily won the Democratic primary in June, is not yet a U.S. senator. He faces Republican Curtis Bashaw, a hotelier from Cape May, in November, though no Republican has won a Senate seat in New Jersey since 1972. Mr. Menendez has also left open the possibility of running for re-election as an independent in November. But Mr. Kim has now become the odds-on favorite.

In many ways he has benefited from the frustration of Democratic voters, particularly progressive activists, over the state’s machine politics.

“Tammy Murphy represents the arrogance of the party bosses,” said Valerie Huttle, a former New Jersey state assemblywoman who was ostracized from the party after she challenged a boss-endorsed candidate for State Senate in 2021. “That’s what I think helped Andy.”

Along the way, he also won a stunning ruling in federal court, barring Democratic Party chairs from designing primary ballots that give preferential treatment to their endorsed candidates.

“It is probably the most significant shift in New Jersey politics in decades,” said Steven Fulop, the mayor of Jersey City and a candidate for governor in 2025.

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