A Senate candidate accused of nepotism has another advantage: the vote

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Tammy Murphy, wife of New Jersey's Democratic governor, announced she was running to unseat the state's embattled senator, Robert Menendez, early Wednesday.

Within hours, he had secured endorsements from Democratic leaders in two counties, followed by a third the next day. That Friday, four more county leaders joined the chorus of praise.

Within 72 hours, without even starting the campaign, Murphy, a first-time candidate with limited experience, had won the endorsement of Democratic leaders in a third of the state's counties, representing 56 percent of registered Democratic voters. from New Jersey.

They had every incentive to get on board quickly. The fate of six of those seven county leaders depends in part on having the governor's sympathy.

In many states, such endorsements would have limited value. But in New Jersey, county leaders have enormous power in primary campaigns due to election rules unique to the state. In 19 of the state's 21 counties, Democratic and Republican leaders can place their favorite primary candidates in what is known as “the line,” a preferred voting position that often means the difference between victory and defeat.

These county-endorsed candidates are grouped with the incumbents most familiar to voters on a horizontal or vertical line. Candidates without endorsements often appear to the side: lone names in a nearby row or on the edge of the ballot, a place commonly known as “Electoral Siberia.”

Good government groups have denounced this decades-old practice as a relic of a corrupt political machine; others have filed a federal lawsuit in hopes of overturning it.

Now, Ms. Murphy's high-profile run in one of the bluest states in the country is seen as a test of the system itself at a time when Democrats are trying to establish a moral high ground on issues of democracy.

Henal Patel, director of law and policy at the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, called the line a “sophisticated form of voter suppression” that contradicts the state’s “halo of progressivism.”

“We like to think, 'Those poor voters in the South, in Alabama and Georgia,'” he said.

“But this is how we do voter suppression in New Jersey,” he added.

Ms. Murphy is competing for the Democratic nomination against a field of candidates that includes Rep. Andy Kim, a South Jersey Democrat in his third term.

Kim, 41, entered the race a day after Menendez was charged in what federal prosecutors described as an elaborate bribery scheme. He is one of the few elected leaders in New Jersey who has called for the line to be overturned, but has acknowledged that he will still compete for the line in every county as he runs for Senate. (He has run across the finish line in every House primary.)

Murphy, 58, who worked as a financial analyst before marrying Gov. Philip D. Murphy and has since volunteered on philanthropic and nonprofit boards, has been dogged by questions about nepotism from the beginning. If elected in November, she and the governor, a second-term Democrat, would hold two of New Jersey's four statewide elected offices.

Even Menéndez, who pleaded not guilty to accepting bribes and did not rule out running for re-election, criticized his entry into the race. “They think they don't have to answer to anyone,” he said of the Murphys.

The governor, who declined to comment for this article, citing the lawsuit challenging the county boundary system, suggested last week that any backlash Ms. Murphy faced was sexist. “I think they hold it against her that she is my wife,” she said during a radio show on WNYC. “I bet you if she were my husband, it would be a different story.”

“He has overwhelming support,” he added, “and he has earned it.”

Still, six of the seven county leaders who endorsed Ms. Murphy within three days of her entering the race also have financial incentives to please the governor, who controls a budget that last year topped $54 billion. and who has the final say on all legislation.

Two are lobbyists with millions of dollars in business before the State. Two of them have generous taxpayer-funded jobs. One runs a law firm with clients hoping to do business with the state. Another sits on the board of a hospital that receives millions of dollars in state subsidies.

Alex Altman, a spokesman for Murphy's campaign, said in a statement that the first lady was working within the system that exists, “like all candidates this cycle.” The early endorsements were a result of “the deep relationships she has built” and “her track record of strengthening the Democratic Party in New Jersey and beyond,” Altman said.

Final decisions on who will be awarded each county line for the June 4 primary have not yet been made, and it remains a topic of open debate in many counties. But there is no doubt that the candidate who wins the most districts will have an extraordinary advantage.

No New Jersey legislative incumbent elected to run across the county line in every county he or she represented has lost a primary election since 2009, according to a recent study by Julia Sass Rubin, a professor at Rutgers University. By comparison, in the other 49 states, 1,145 legislative incumbents lost primaries during that same period. Congressional candidates had a lead of 38 percentage points, according to the study.

Sam Wang, a professor of neuroscience at Princeton University who directs the school's Gerrymandering Project, called the line “New Jersey's special sauce” that “guides the eye.”

“We like lines of objects in a row,” Professor Wang said of their power. Voters are attracted to candidates whose names appear on the line and may overlook others, he said.

The county boundary system is not without its defenders.

Micah Rasmussen, director of the Rebovich Institute of New Jersey Politics at Rider University, said he believed the county line could be a useful tool for selecting candidates and preserving the party's identity. “It's like a board of directors making a recommendation to shareholders,” Professor Rasmussen said. “It's up to voters to ratify the recommendations or not.”

The contours of Ms. Murphy's primary have created an extraordinary situation for Democratic county chairs.

LeRoy J. Jones Jr. is the chairman of Essex County, which includes Newark and has more Democratic voters than any other county in the state, and the chairman of the state Democratic Party; He is also a registered lobbyist with 1868 Public Affairs. Since 2018, when Murphy was sworn in, Jones has earned about $1.5 million in lobbying fees, according to state lobbying records, including $378,000 in 2022.

Jones said he offered an early endorsement because he had worked well with Murphy during the governor's two terms and believed she would be a successful senator. She said she had never felt pressured to support her to preserve her standing with the governor.

Kevin P. McCabe, president of the Middlesex County Democratic Organization, which is among the most influential in the state, is also a partner in a lobbying firm, River Crossing Strategy Group. River Crossing disclosed just under $2 million in fees in 2022. One customer, Equinor, is an energy company specializing in wind turbines. The Murphy administration is currently searching for a new supplier for a multimillion-dollar wind farm planned for the Jersey Shore.

McCabe was also nominated by Murphy to the board of directors of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, an unpaid position that is considered one of the most powerful political positions in the New York region and oversees a $9 billion budget. of dollars. (He was first nominated by former Governor Chris Christie in 2018 and renominated by Mr. Murphy in 2021.)

McCabe did not comment on his endorsement of Ms. Murphy.

Paul A. Juliano, Democratic chairman of Bergen County, the state's most populous region, endorsed Murphy on the same day as McCabe and Jones. In March, the governor nominated Juliano to be executive director of the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority, a state position with a salary of $280,000. Juliano declined to comment on his endorsement.

Other supporters have financial ties to municipal or county governments, which get both money and direction from state leaders.

Passaic County Democratic Chairman John Currie was hired by the Passaic County Board of Social Services for a part-time consulting job focused on social benefits in April 2018. The job pays $92,000 a year. (Mr. Currie said his work in Passaic County has nothing to do with the state and that he endorsed Ms. Murphy because “she helped me a lot” when he was state president and the two are friends).

Peg Schaffer, Somerset County Democratic chairwoman, runs a law firm regularly hired by local governments. Her bio on the company's website also states that she “represents several out-of-state entities eager to do business in New Jersey.”

Schaffer, who is also vice chair of the New Jersey Democratic State Committee, said her endorsement of Murphy was “totally based on who she is.”

“She is a voice that is not heard down there,” Schaffer said of Congress.

George E. Norcross III, a powerful insurance executive, is not county president, but he still has enormous influence over Camden County Democrats and others in South Jersey. He is chairman of the board of Cooper Health System and Cooper University Hospital, which received more than $50 million in grants this year from the state.

The Camden County Democratic chair also endorsed Ms. Murphy the day after she entered the race. Norcross declined to comment on the endorsement.

Even if Murphy wins the right to run in most counties, voters will have the final say. And there are early signs that progressive groups that emerged in the wake of the 2016 election, when Democrats organized to mitigate former President Donald J. Trump's power in Congress, are mobilizing in favor of Kim. This, combined with the high-profile nature of the race for Mr. Menendez's seat and renewed media scrutiny of the county line itself, has left opponents hopeful that the state could be on the brink of change. .

“If there's a recipe for this to go down,” Patel said, “it's now.”

kitty bennett contributed to the research.



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