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    Andy Kim takes on the Democratic Party machine in New Jersey Senate race

    Rep. Andy Kim (D-N.J.) sat quietly off to the side of a big hall on a Saturday in early February, when an aide delivered the unexpected news that the party faithful of Monmouth County chose him over their powerful local candidate.

    “You won,” an aide whispered into Kim’s ear. “It wasn’t even close.”

    Kim, a third-term congressman from the state’s Philadelphia suburbs, had just thumped Tammy Murphy, the wife of the popular Gov. Phil Murphy (D), by nearly 20 percentage points in her home county to collect the endorsement for the Senate nomination.

    Kim both secured the Monmouth Democrat’s “line” — a top placement on the June 4 primary ballot — and jolted the state’s Democrats into realizing they had their first real battle for a statewide nomination in nearly 25 years.

    “I think that was an inflection point for a lot of the state to recognize, oh, wait, this is a real competition,” Kim recalled in an interview on Friday on Capitol Hill.

    From that moment on, Kim has taken on the mantle of the unlikely insurgent candidate trying to take down the vaunted machine of the New Jersey Democratic Party, where for decades political bosses in the 21 counties have wielded outsize power to determine who gets elected.

    Kim, 41, has turned the Senate race into something bigger than just a fight over who should replace the state’s senior senator, Bob Menendez (D), who faces a felony corruption trial later this year and is mulling running as an independent.

    Now Kim is trying to fight against the system of these county party chiefs, both through running to defeat their handpicked candidate, Murphy, and by battling in court to try to outlaw the “line” system.

    “It’s more of a movement to try to restore power back to the citizen, to the voters, to the people. And that appeals to a wide swath,” Kim said.

    This is not the standard ideological battles of far-left progressives against mainstream liberals that have dominated the last decade of Democratic politics. Kim, a Rhodes Scholar, served in the State Department and on the National Security Council under the Bush and Obama administrations. He jumped into politics in 2018, even though he was a long shot in a GOP district.

    He eventually received large establishment backing and eked out a win by 1 percentage point. He has positioned himself more along the lines of other national security experts from that massive Democratic class of 2018, smart technocrats who don’t embrace the rage-against-the-machine ethos of the self-proclaimed “Squad” of far-left liberals.

    He gained some national attention when an Associated Press picture, in the overnight hours after the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol, went viral showing Kim on his knees cleaning up the trash left behind by rioters. He spent hours that night personally cleaning historic rooms of the Capitol.

    One scorecard, ranking votes from 2021 when Democrats moved an aggressive agenda, gave Kim an 80 percent liberal rating, tying for 7th most liberal out of the state’s 10 Democrats in the House.

    Murphy, 51, and her allies look at all this and see a standard politician who is now embracing an outsider activist posture for electoral gain.

    Her spokesman dismissed Kim’s lawsuit trying to dismantle the county-line system as a “sad, hypocritical stunt” and noted that his problem was “with the idea of losing county lines” because of Murphy’s stronger standing in the voter-heavy counties of North Jersey.

    Last weekend, the state’s Democratic attorney general surprised legal observers by announcing his office believed the system was unconstitutional and would no longer defend the practice in court.

    But Kim looks at the way the state’s power brokers tried to muscle him aside and sees a broader culture that allowed Menendez to retain his seat without any real political challenge after two previous corruption investigations, including one that ended in a hung jury. Only after this latest scandal, including gold bars allegedly given to him by Egyptian business interests, did the state’s Democratic elder statesmen decide to move on.

    “This primary is not just like some random open primary. Its origin story comes out from one of the most, high-profile political scandals of my lifetime that I’ve seen, in terms of New Jersey. So voters are already predisposed to a concern about corruption and cronyism,” he said Friday.

    Kim jumped into the race immediately after the initial indictment counts were unsealed and Menendez first declared he would not resign. That was followed by calls for his resignation from state and national leaders, including the governor, a former Goldman Sachs executive who served as ambassador to Germany for President Barack Obama.

    The governor quickly sent word that his wife, who grew up as a Republican and has made large donations to George W. Bush’s presidential campaigns, would be entering politics herself. And up and down the state, members of the congressional delegation and chairmen of the county Democratic machines endorsed Tammy Murphy for Senate.

    In almost any other era, Kim would have simply dropped out, because the power of the line is so great in New Jersey. When the county party endorses a candidate, the ballot gets printed in a manner that puts the full slate of endorsees in a prime spot and challengers might end up in hard-to-find locations, what Kim called “ballot Siberia” in his lawsuit.

    In Friday’s interview, he recalled the doubts from local leaders seven years ago about running for the House.

    “The first question that they ask is,” Kim recalled, “can you get the line?” All his other House colleagues, from other states, got a different first question: “How much money can you raise?”

    So rather than deferring to Murphy, Kim marched on and turned the campaign into something of a referendum on the way New Jersey runs its politics.

    “The same party leaders that protected Menendez for so many years by giving him the county line, not allowing for a legitimate challenger to go up against him, those same exact people are now the ones that are trying to coronate Tammy Murphy,” he said.

    In local races, anti-establishment figures have had some success against the party leaders, but statewide contests — particularly for Democrats — seemingly always tip toward the candidate with the most important county endorsements.

    In 2013, Sen. Cory Booker won the Democratic primary in a special election with overwhelming support from county power brokers, defeating his closest rival, Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., dean of the state’s Democratic House delegation, by a 3-to-1 margin.

    The last truly competitive statewide Democratic primary came in the 2000 Senate race, when another former Goldman Sachs executive, Jon Corzine, spent more than $35 million of his own money to win over the endorsements of the North Jersey county chairmen. Jim Florio, the still popular former governor, had support from his native South Jersey and decades of experience in state and local politics.

    In the end, Corzine’s fortune and county-line support helped him pull away late to a 15-point win over Florio.

    In 10 counties that held a secret vote of party activists to determine the endorsement, Kim won nine times, all by large double-digit margins.

    Murphy’s allies believe that those county conventions are populated by activists who are a small sample size of the more than 1 million voters who will likely make up the Democratic electorate in June. They are frustrated by so much process talk in this campaign and want to focus on her work as the state’s first lady promoting abortion rights, climate change and fighting gun violence.

    She has said she’s willing to support a change in voting procedures, but noted she has to play by the current rules of the road for now.

    Kim has focused on her long support of the Republican Party, well into her 40s, to question her now liberal credentials. “When she was my age, she was donating to George Bush. You know, this was not something where she was young in her life,” he said.

    But the overall thrust of the campaign continues to be taking down the power brokers that run things, an sees no better time to strike that message.

    “Look, we live in the time of the greatest amount of distrust in government in modern American history. That’s in all 50 states,” he said.

    That became all too clear three years ago when he walked into the Rotunda and saw the place ransacked. Now, every day he’s in the Capitol, Kim takes about 10 to 15 minutes to sit there by himself and reflect, just as he did before this interview Friday.

    “It’s a place that — it just kind of grounds me,” he said.

    If he can beat the machine in New Jersey, Kim will get to complete his walk across the Capitol, to the Senate.

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