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Garden state race

Tammy Murphy kicks off campaign for Senate in New Jersey

Pro-Israel advocates in the Garden State vouch for Murphy’s longstanding commitment to the Jewish state

Bryan Bedder/Variety via Getty Images

First Lady of New Jersey Tammy Murphy and Governor Phil Murphy speak onstage at the 15th Annual Induction Ceremony for the New Jersey Hall of Fame at NJPAC October 29, 2023 in Newark, New Jersey.

Tammy Murphy, the first lady of New Jersey, launched her campaign to replace embattled Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) on Wednesday, setting the stage for a competitive primary that now includes two formidable challengers.

Murphy, a first-time candidate whose bid had been widely expected, enters the race as a frontrunner, thanks to her statewide profile, fundraising prowess and relationships with Democratic Party leaders in New Jersey whose endorsements could influence favorable ballot placement in next year’s election.

“I am so proud of everything we’ve accomplished, but I know there’s a lot more to do,” Murphy, 58, said in a campaign kickoff video, touting her signature policy initiatives as first lady, such as addressing maternal mortality and combating climate change. “Right now, Washington is filled with too many people more interested in getting rich or getting on camera than getting things done for you.”

Murphy’s campaign team is likely to include close allies of her husband, two-term Gov. Phil Murphy, according to a Democratic source in New Jersey who requested anonymity to discuss the race. Dan Bryan, a former senior adviser to the governor who leads two political advocacy groups with ties to the administration, is among the consultants expected to join the campaign, the source said.

A person connected to Tammy Murphy’s campaign, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share private deliberations, said she is still in the process of finalizing her team, which she will announce next week.

Murphy’s chief primary rival, Rep. Andy Kim (D-NJ), who announced his candidacy shortly after Menendez was indicted on federal bribery charges in September, was ready for the competition on Wednesday, circulating an internal poll that placed him 19 points ahead of his new opponent.

“Today’s poll shows that New Jersey voters want someone who is battle tested and proven so we don’t let Washington Republicans take back the Senate,” Kim, who officially launched his campaign on Friday, said in a statement shared with Jewish Insider on Wednesday. “My message of integrity and changing our broken politics is connecting all across the state.”

The 41-year-old Democrat from South Jersey, a former national security adviser in the Obama administration, raised more than $1 million last quarter and entered October with nearly $2 million on hand — notably outpacing Menendez, who pulled in just over $900,000 over the same period.

While he has refused to resign, Menendez, whose popularity has plummeted following charges that he accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes and sought political favors as an alleged agent of Egypt, has not revealed whether he will seek reelection. But the longtime senior senator immediately went on the offensive after Murphy’s announcement, testing a line of attack that could be recycled by other candidates as the race progresses.

“While Tammy Murphy was a card-carrying Republican for years,” Menendez, 69, said in a statement on Wednesday, “I was working to elect Democrats up and down the ballot and fighting in Washington to deliver for hardworking families in New Jersey.”

Murphy would be the first woman elected to represent New Jersey in the Senate. The primary also includes Larry Hamm, a progressive activist who announced his campaign in September. 

The race could ultimately coalesce around Murphy and Kim, who flipped a GOP-held swing seat in 2018. The three-term congressman saw his profile rise when a viral photo captured him cleaning up debris from the floor of the Capitol building after the Jan. 6 attack nearly three years ago.

Even as she has been actively engaged as first lady, Murphy, a former financial analyst who until 2014 regularly voted in Republican primaries, remains something of a cipher on a host of key policy issues. Her campaign site does not include an issues page.

But Jewish and pro-Israel activists in the Garden State say Murphy has a strong command of foreign policy and would be an outspoken supporter of Israel if she is elected, pointing to her multiple trips to the Jewish state and frequent engagement with Jewish communal leaders during her five years as first lady. 

Most recently, Murphy, whose father, Edward Snyder, was Jewish, gave remarks at a community event organized by Chabad of the Shore in Long Branch, just days after Hamas’ Oct. 7 terror attack in southern Israel. “We have all seen the horrific videos recorded by the perpetrators themselves and we’ve heard the harrowing first-hand accounts,” Murphy told the crowd. “Hamas must cease to exist.”

“As the daughter of a man who was proudly Jewish and deeply loved Israel, my heart breaks with you,” Murphy continued, recalling that her father’s “last wish,” in 2018, had been that she and he her husband continue on a trade mission to Israel “rather than rush back to be by his side” before his death. “I say this because that is how much Israel and the bonds between our two nations meant to my father, and I am proud to carry on his legacy.”

Karen Elkis, a co-chair of the New Jersey-Israel Commission, said that Murphy “definitely holds Israel near and dear” and has long been a champion of Jewish causes. “If she wins, she will be such a powerful force for the Jewish community,” Elkis said in an interview with JI on Wednesday. “It’s very personal to her.”

A Jewish community leader in New Jersey who is close to the Murphy administration said the first lady is “very proud of her Jewish background” and often “talks about it” in public as well as private settings. “I’ve always found her to be very sincere in her feelings and connections to the Jewish people,” the community leader, who requested anonymity to discuss the first lady, told JI. “She’s an advocate.”

“I’m very happy to tell you that I have no reservations at all about the relationship that Tammy Murphy has with our community,” said Avi Schnall, the former director of Agudath Israel of America’s New Jersey office and a Democratic assemblyman-elect from the heavily Orthodox city of Lakewood. “Her engagement is solid, her support is solid, and what I’m saying now is exactly what I would have said six months ago before any thought of her running for Senate.”

Murphy, who grew up in Virginia, first visited Israel with her father when she was about 8, and she has since made several trips back to the Jewish state, where she has met with a range of Israeli officials including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Isaac Herzog. While in Berlin during Phil Murphy’s tenure as U.S. ambassador to Germany in the Obama administration, the Murphys also built a close relationship with Israel’s then-ambassador there, Yoram Ben Zeev, who served as an IDF lieutenant in the 1967 Six-Day War.

Murphy’s Jewish supporters believe that her history of personal engagement with Israeli leaders will serve her well at a particularly fraught moment for the U.S.-Israel relationship. “I think that gives her a deep understanding, more than most, of Israeli foreign policy,” said the Jewish community leader. “She has experience working with Israeli officials.”

Even before the attack, Middle East policy was expected to be a salient issue for Jewish and pro-Israel voters who have long viewed Menendez, until recently the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, as a stalwart ally of Israel. Pro-Israel groups — including AIPAC, Democratic Majority for Israel and NORPAC — have indicated that they will continue to stand behind Menendez as he faces trial.

Previously, Kim has won backing from DMFI’s political action committee, the Jewish Democratic Council of America and J Street, the progressive Israel advocacy group. He has visited Israel twice as a congressman and is now seeking to burnish his national security credentials and record on Israel, recently leading a House letter expressing support for supplemental military funding to Israel.

Elkis, a former adviser to several New Jersey senators, said that Murphy has “made sure” to keep Israel “at the forefront” of her advocacy as first lady. “She was one of the first people who texted me Saturday morning when everything was happening in Israel,” Elkis said of Hamas’ attack last month. “She was on it right away, lending her support.”

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