Tammy Murphy, the wife of Gov. Philip D. Murphy of New Jersey, announced Wednesday that she is running as a Democrat for the U.S. Senate seat now held by the state’s embattled senior senator, Robert Menendez, who has been accused of accepting bribes.
Mrs. Murphy, 58, is a first-time candidate for public office who describes himself on tax forms as a homemaker. During her husband’s six years as governor, she has been an active first lady, working to improve the state’s high maternal and infant mortality rates and to expand climate change education in public schools.
Before she and Mr. Married 30 years ago, Mrs. Murphy worked as a financial analyst and has since volunteered on nonprofit and philanthropic boards.
Mrs. Murphy has been preparing to run for the Senate for more than a month, and she announced her candidacy Wednesday with the release of a nearly four-minute video.
“We owe it to our kids to do better,” she says, speaking directly to camera, introducing herself primarily as a mother of four who, when given the chance, used her platform as first lady to advocate for improved pregnancy outcomes.
“Right now, Washington is filled with too many people who are more interested in getting rich or getting on camera,” she says, as a photo of Mr. Menendez winks in the background, “than getting things done for you.”
Ms. Murphy already has at least two Democratic primary opponents: Representative Andy Kim, who has represented South Jersey in Congress since 2019, and Larry Hamm, a political activist and second-term Senate candidate who heads the People’s Organization for Progress. Patricia Campos-Medina, a left-leaning labor leader who runs the Worker Institute at Cornell University, said Tuesday she was also preparing to enter the race.
Mr. Menendez has pleaded not guilty to federal charges of bribery and schemes to act as an agent for Egypt, and he has said he will not resign from the Senate.
He has not ruled out seeking re-election, but if he does compete for the Democratic nomination, he will face several practical challenges.
A federal judge has scheduled his trial to start a month before the June primary, and he has been abandoned by nearly every leading Democrat in the state, including Mr. Murphy, leaving him with an extremely difficult path to victory.
Mr. Menendez said that Mrs. Murphy’s entry into the race proved that the governor, who was among the first officials to call for his resignation, had a “personal, vested interest” in doing so.
“They think they don’t have to answer to anybody,” said Mr. Menendez about the Murphys in a written statement. “But I am confident that the people of New Jersey will push back against this blatant disenfranchisement maneuver.”
Mrs. In Wednesday’s video, Murphy called her role as New Jersey’s first lady “the honor of my life.” But she has also built a reputation as an aggressive campaign fundraiser and now has seven months to present herself to voters as a candidate in her own right.
She is running as a Democrat for one of the most coveted political awards in the country, yet she is relatively new to the party. Voting records show she voted regularly in Republican primaries until 2014, three years before her husband was elected governor in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans by nearly a million voters.
Mrs. Murphy continued to vote in Republican primaries even while Mr. Murphy served as finance chairman of the Democratic National Committee and as ambassador to Germany, appointed by former President Barack Obama.
She declined an interview request and her aides have refused to discuss her reasons for switching parties at 49.
But Mr. Kim said that Mrs. Murphy’s voting record raised valid questions, especially in a Democratic primary.
“I think she has to explain it,” said Mr. Kim, 41, Monday in an interview.
Mr. Menendez also took issue with the first lady’s changed party affiliation.
“While Tammy Murphy was a card-carrying Republican for years,” he said, “I worked to elect Democrats up and down the ballot.”
Kim, a national security adviser under the Obama administration, entered the Senate race a day after Mr. Menendez and his wife, Nadine Menendez, were accused of accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes in exchange for the senator’s efforts to manage aid. and arms to Egypt and helping allies avoid prosecution.
Mr. Kim also released a campaign video this week in which he is shown talking to a group of enthralled voters.
“I think the opposite of democracy is apathy,” said Mr. Kim, father of 6- and 8-year-old boys, to explain his motivation for running.
“I look at all the craziness in the world,” he said, adding, “I don’t want my kids to grow up in a broken America.”
Mr. Kim, who gained national prominence after being photographed clearing debris from the floor of the Capitol after the Jan. 6 attack, raised nearly $1 million in a single week after announcing his candidacy, and he said he continued to to raise money at a rapid clip.
To win, he will most likely need to capture the imagination of voters without significant help from New Jersey’s Democratic party leaders, who hold sway over the so-called county line — the location of ballots often considered a win-win.
New Jersey has a unique election system that allows Democratic and Republican county leaders to anoint favored candidates in each race on a primary ballot and put them together in a vertical or horizontal column.
Studies have shown that being elected increases a candidate’s probability of victory by as much as 38 percentage points.
“It’s a rich game,” said Julia Sass Rubin, an associate dean at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University, who has researched the influence of county lines in federal and legislative races.
New Jersey’s Working Families Alliance and several former candidates have filed a federal lawsuit they hope will lead a court to overturn the practice. “The election is almost over before it starts,” said Brett Pugach, an attorney who filed the federal suit, about the ballot system, which he believes is unconstitutional.
But in the meantime, the governor and Ms. Murphy have been busy courting Democratic leaders in the state’s densely populated counties closest to New York City and Philadelphia, according to three people familiar with the conversations, who did not want to be identified, saying something that could be considered critical of the governor.
Several of those chairmen work as lobbyists with significant business before the state or have lucrative state jobs, limiting the likelihood that they can openly oppose a governor with two years left on his term — and control of the next two billion-dollar state budgets.
Within hours of formally announcing her candidacy, Ms. Murphy endorsed by Peg Schaffer, chairwoman of the Somerset County Democratic Committee, 11 of Hudson County’s mayors and nine of its state legislators. Anthony Vainieri, the Democratic chairman of Hudson County, where Mr. Menendez got his start in politics, said Ms. Murphy would run on the county line.
Mrs. Campos-Medina, who emigrated from El Salvador at 14 and lives in Califon, western New Jersey, said it was “backroom deals among political elites” that had pushed her to run.
“The line disenfranchises women, and especially women of color, and does not encourage voter turnout,” Ms. Campos-Medina, 50.
A coalition of 26 left-wing organizations in New Jersey quickly echoed Ms. Campos-Medina’s criticism.
“We are outraged that the corruption of Senator Menendez, who is under indictment and has still refused to resign, will be replaced with nepotism,” the coalition, the Fair Vote Alliance, said in a statement.
The winner of the Democratic primary will next November face a Republican who hopes to break the Democrats’ four-decade streak in the Senate. There are at least two Republicans interested in vying for the nomination: Christine Serrano Glassner, the mayor of Mendham Borough, and Shirley Maia-Cusick, a member of the Federated Republican Women of Hunterdon County.
If one of the women is successful, she would make history as the first woman elected to the US Senate from New Jersey.
Mrs. Murphy would also be the first spouse of a sitting governor to be elected to the United States Senate. And she is also likely to become the fifth member of New Jersey’s congressional delegation with relatives who have held prominent political positions, joining Reps. Robert Menendez Jr., Donald Norcross and Donald M. Payne Jr., all Democrats, and Rep. Tom Kean Jr. ., a Republican.
Ross K. Baker, a professor at Rutgers University who has studied Congress for 50 years, said New Jersey’s county-line system contributed to what he called “political dynasties.”
“It is fundamentally undemocratic,” Professor Baker said. “Politics should not be a family business.”