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Andy Kim upended New Jersey politics. Now he’s on track to become a senator

Rep. Andy Kim, D-NJ, challenged a nearly century old ballot system in New Jersey and has emerged as an unexpected frontrunner in the race for the U.S. Senate.
Seth Wenig/AP
Rep. Andy Kim, D-NJ, challenged a nearly century old ballot system in New Jersey and has emerged as an unexpected frontrunner in the race for the U.S. Senate.

Andy Kim couldn’t rest one evening last September.

“I didn't get a single minute of sleep that night,” he recalled in an interview with NPR, “I really felt like I had to do something and really show people that, you know, when there's these problems in our politics, that there are people who want to step up and try to fix it.”

The problem was his fellow New Jersey Democrat, Sen. Bob Menendez. Last fall, Menendez was indicted for the second time on corruption charges. The news might not have rocked most voters in New Jersey — where as many as 80% of its residents said they viewed the state’s politicians as at least “a little” corrupt, according to a May 2023 Fairleigh Dickinson University poll.

But Kim had a different reaction. He quickly became the first Democrat in the state to call for Menendez to resign, then he hastily assembled a call with political advisers to ask: What if he ran for Senate instead?

“Many of them said, ‘Oh, well, look, we can build out a six week roadmap here. We can have a launch video. We can have a website and a press plan.’ And I remember just telling them on the phone, like, ‘What would you say if I launched in 3 hours from now?’ ”

And he did, announcing his Senate bid initially with a tweet, and a formal campaign kickoff last November where he pledged to be “a decent human being.”

Meanwhile, New Jersey’s Democratic political machine had other plans for the Senate seat. Tammy Murphy, the wife of Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy, jumped into the race despite having no prior political experience and a history of donating to Republicans. Her candidacy added a layer of high-profile political nepotism to a primary race already shaped by corruption as Menendez refused to drop out.

Murphy quickly locked up endorsements from Kim’s fellow Democratic congressmen and local party bosses. But Kim’s campaign was getting traction on the ground with voters. “I was often up 20 points in the polls, but I was referred to as the underdog of the race because of this structural problem,” he said.

Refusing to walk "the line"

Unlike every other state, which lists candidates on ballots by the office they are running for, New Jersey’s primary ballots have been organized around a slate of candidates generally endorsed by local party leaders and then presented to voters as a line of names together, either vertically or horizontally depending on the county.

Other candidates for the same office are often place in columns or rows farther away, a place critics refer to as “ballot Siberia.”

One such critic, Rutgers University associate dean Julia Sass Rubin, has studied the line system — in place since roughly the 1940s — and found it was extraordinarily successful at electing the candidates endorsed by both Democratic and Republican party bosses.

“I looked at this in multiple ways, both in terms of historical legislative races, congressional races, gubernatorial races, and it provides a double-digit advantage to candidates consistently over a period of 20 years, I found," she told NPR.

In February, Kim filed a lawsuit challenging that ballot system.

In March, Murphy dropped out of the Senate primary race. Her campaign was lagging as Kim was scoring upset victories in local Democratic county conventions, suggesting a victory was not guaranteed for her but a bruising primary was in sight.

“It is clear to me that continuing in this race will involve waging a very divisive and negative campaign which I am not willing to do,” she said in a video statement announcing her exit from the race.

 A sample of the new Democratic primary ballot in New Jersey.
Screenshot by NPR
A sample of the new Democratic primary ballot in New Jersey.

And then in April, Kim won in court.

A federal appeals court upheld a preliminary injunction that bars the use of the line balloting system in Tuesday’s Democratic primary. A judge in the case ruled that the system was discriminatory because it punishes candidates not endorsed by party leaders.

The Republican ballots in Tuesday’s primary will still use the line system as they were not involved in the legal challenge.

Professor Rubin, an expert witness in the case, said its impact on state politics could be profound. “It’s an absolute earthquake for the state because the county line has allowed a handful of people, really a handful of men, to make all the decisions for the state. If you can control who gets elected to political office, you can control everything.”

From dark horse to presumptive nominee

In a matter of weeks, Kim went from a long-shot candidate taking on the state’s vaunted political machine, to the presumptive nominee heavily favored to win the Senate seat in November. Menendez plans to run as an independent, and while that could dilute Kim’s support, New Jersey hasn’t sent a Republican to the Senate in more than 50 years.

Even party elders who initially endorsed Murphy in the race have found respect for Kim’s campaign. “This is the segue. This is how we get to the next generation,” said Rep. Bill Pascrell, D-N.J., who has served in state politics for nearly as long as the 41-year-old Kim has been alive. “It is what it is. I’m not going to cry over it,” Pascrell added.

Rubin says Kim benefitted from good timing — he was the right candidate at the right political moment. “He definitely had the right framing for people to believe that he is a reformer, and he was willing to take that risk and go up against the system.”

Rep. Andy Kim, D-N.J., gained national attention after photos were published of him helping to clean up U.S. Capitol after rioters stormed the building on Jan. 6, 2021.
Andrew Harnik / AP
Rep. Andy Kim, D-N.J., gained national attention after photos were published of him helping to clean up U.S. Capitol after rioters stormed the building on Jan. 6, 2021.

Part of Kim’s public image was burnished the night of Jan. 6, 2021, when an Associated Press photographer captured an image of Kim down on his knees picking up trash the rioters had left behind. The picture went viral. Kim told NPR he received thousands of letters from Americans moved by that small show of decency. The Smithsonian even asked for the suit he wore that day to keep in their collection.

“After January 6, people ask me, ‘Are you going to continue to be in politics? Are you doing to do this?' And I said, ‘Yes, I’m actually going to now dedicate my life to trying to solve and address one singular question which is: How do we heal this country?'”

Kim readily admits he doesn’t have all the answers to that question, but if he is elected this November, it won’t involve toeing the party line.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Susan Davis is a congressional correspondent for NPR and a co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast. She has covered Congress, elections, and national politics since 2002 for publications including USA TODAY, The Wall Street Journal, National Journal and Roll Call. She appears regularly on television and radio outlets to discuss congressional and national politics, and she is a contributor on PBS's Washington Week with Robert Costa. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Philadelphia native.