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Andy Kim touts support for Israel — and his national security experience — in Senate challenge to Menendez

In 2021, Kim joined progressives calling for an Israeli ceasefire against Hamas, but now says he fully backs Israel striking back

Rep. Andy Kim (D-NJ) is touting his national security credentials and support for Israel in its ongoing war with Hamas as he mounts a new challenge to embattled Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ), a hawkish pro-Israel Democrat recently charged with conspiring to act as an agent of the Egyptian government.

“This is a place where I can really lean in and engage,” Kim, 41, pledged in an interview with Jewish Insider last week. “Not just from a legislative background, but actually having served in the executive branch and worked out there in the Middle East.”

The three-term Democrat, a former State Department official who served as a national security adviser in the Obama administration, said that Middle East policy has been a “top priority” during his time in the House, noting that Israel is “the only country” he has “visited twice” as a member of Congress.

Hamas’ brutal terrorist attack was “something well beyond anything I was capable of processing,” he said, calling the atrocities “immensely personal” to his congressional district. “I was there at Temple Beth Sholom in Cherry Hill, right across the street from the high school that I graduated from,” Kim told JI. “I wanted to make sure that people know I’m there standing with them through these terrible times.”

“We’ve got to make sure that those who perpetrated that horrific terrorist attack are held accountable, and that they are going to be defeated in a way that can ensure Israel’s security going forward,” Kim vowed, even as he expressed concern that the conflict could ignite a broader regional war that draws in Hezbollah or Iran. “That keeps me up at night.” 

Under normal circumstances, Kim would likely have a hard time selling his record on Middle East issues to pro-Israel activists who have long viewed Menendez as one of the strongest supporters of Israel in the Senate. 

But Kim argued that Menendez, who recently stepped down from his perch atop the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, had lost the privilege of being trusted by his constituents after a federal indictment last month alleged a brazen scheme in which he and his wife, Nadine, accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes in exchange for political influence.

“That sense of public trust is so important,” said Kim, who sits on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “Especially when it comes to national security.”

The congressman voiced reservations that Menendez continues to serve on the Foreign Relations Committee, where he has “access to classified information” even after a new indictment charged that he had secretly acted as an agent of Egypt. The senator, who has denied the allegations while refusing to resign, did not attend a classified briefing on the situation in Israel last week, amid renewed scrutiny over his legal challenges.

“He’ll have his day in court, but his ability to do his job right now, with the confidence of the people, I don’t feel that,” Kim, who has called for Menendez to be expelled, told JI. “He’s my senator still, he’s my family’s senator, and I don’t feel that confidence right now.”

A spokesperson for Menendez did not respond to a request for comment.

While the majority of Senate Democrats have urged Menendez to resign, leading pro-Israel groups, including AIPAC and Democratic Majority for Israel, have continued to stand by the senator, claiming that he is entitled to the presumption of innocence. Still, public polling strongly indicates that Menendez’s political career is all but finished, even as he has vowed that he will be exonerated.

Dan Cassino, a political scientist and pollster at Fairleigh Dickinson University, called Kim “a strong contender” for the nomination, even as he predicted that “a lot more people” will jump into the primary. “I’d be very surprised if this didn’t turn into a very competitive race,” Cassino told JI. “There are a lot of potential claimants here who want that seat.”

Last cycle, Kim — who flipped a GOP-held swing seat in 2018 — won backing from DMFI’s political arm as well as the Jewish Democratic Council of America and J Street, the progressive Israel advocacy group.

He launched his campaign to challenge Menendez just a day after the initial indictment a month ago and has since outraised the long-serving senator, pulling in more than $1 million in just over a week. 

“This is not something I planned to do,” Kim said. “But I think right now, more than ever, people are losing trust in their government and are really hoping that we can find a way to restore that sense of integrity in our politics. That’s very much what’s driving me and pushing me right now.”

Dan Cassino, a political scientist and pollster at Fairleigh Dickinson University, called Kim “a strong contender” for the nomination, even as he predicted that “a lot more people” will jump into the primary. “I’d be very surprised if this didn’t turn into a very competitive race,” Cassino told JI. “There are a lot of potential claimants here who want that seat.”

Among those rumored to be weighing bids are Tammy Murphy, the first lady of New Jersey, and several members of the state’s congressional delegation, including Reps. Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ), Frank Pallone (D-NJ) and Donald Norcross (D-NJ), who is “seriously considering entering the race,” according to a source recently informed of his thinking.

A spokesperson for Norcross said in a statement to JI last Thursday that the congressman “has been enormously flattered by people encouraging him to consider a run, but at the moment, he is laser focused on ensuring that Israel gets the support it needs” and “how to stop the dysfunction we are seeing in the House that’s slowing down that aid.”

In the coming months, Norcross, who visited Israel two weeks ago on a bipartisan House delegation shortly after the attacks, “will consider whether a Senate run is the right decision for him, his family and the citizens of New Jersey,” his spokesperson said.

Former Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-NJ), who was unseated last cycle, also didn’t rule out a bid in response to an email inquiry from JI last Thursday. “Right now, my political focus is on helping school board candidates who oppose banning books in our upcoming November elections,” he said. “I haven’t made any decisions about my own future and won’t until after that’s done.”

“This conflict, the magnitude, the tragedy of the terror attack is so significant,” Kim told JI, “that we absolutely need to make sure that this is responded to and that Israel has the ability to defend itself.”

Even as he has largely embraced a mainstream Democratic approach to the Middle East, Kim doesn’t have the same fan base in the pro-Israel community as Gottheimer, an Iran hawk who is among the most outspoken supporters of Israel in the House. The congressman was included in an inaugural slate of House and Senate endorsements released by AIPAC’s political action committee last March.

The group also backed Pallone and Norcross, as well as Menendez — potentially complicating the Senate primary.

While he called for an “immediate ceasefire” during the last major conflict between Israel and Hamas in May 2021, Kim said he now disagrees with left-wing House members who have urged de-escalation in the wake of the recent incursion, where more than 1,400 Israelis were murdered and some 200 hostages were taken into Gaza. “This conflict, the magnitude, the tragedy of the terror attack is so significant,” he told JI, “that we absolutely need to make sure that this is responded to and that Israel has the ability to defend itself.”

“In the past, I think those were situations where there were rocket attacks and Israel was defending itself — and I certainly respected it and believed that they had the right to defend themselves at that time,” Kim clarified. “The question there was, how do you try to figure out an ability to prevent that from going into a more regional war? And it felt like there were opportunities that both the Israelis and others were open to, at that time, to be able to have a way to prevent this from just cycling out of control.”

His concerns over the flare-up of violence in 2021 “were very specific to the moment,” he said, adding that “a diplomatic off-ramp” isn’t an option in every conflict. “As someone trained in diplomacy, I always want to see if there’s an opportunity,” Kim explained. “But oftentimes, especially when it’s a major terrorist attack, there needs to be an understanding of just what that means at that time.”

He commended President Joe Biden for urging Israel to show restraint as he continues to stand in solidarity with the Jewish state. 

“I want to make sure that the United States and Israel and others are able to talk to each other about where we see this kind of conflict heading,” Kim said. “We have prepared for some of those types of consequences that can continue to arrive, like a broader regional war or an even larger humanitarian crisis we’re seeing, so we just want to make sure we’re thinking strategically.”

Kim indicated that he is eager to demonstrate his experience assessing such crises as he reaches out to voters in the coming months.

“I hope people see my track record,” he told JI. “National security has been my entire career.”

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