Representative Andy Kim, a third-term Democratic congressman, won an early but significant victory on Saturday against New Jersey’s first lady, Tammy Murphy, as they compete in one of the country’s most closely watched Senate primaries.
Mr. Kim, 41, was selected as the Democratic Party’s nominee in Monmouth County during the first convention of its kind this election cycle — a high-stakes affair that drew a standing-room-only crowd of delegates to the Portuguese Club of Long Branch, a 32,000-person seaside community.
It was a win laden with symbolism. Ms. Murphy, 58, lives in Monmouth County, and Mr. Kim represents a large swath of the affluent, predominantly coastal region.
In September, the dean of the state’s Democrats, Senator Robert Menendez, was charged with taking bribes for the second time in 10 years, creating a rare opportunity for challengers to vie for the coveted seat. Mr. Menendez has not ruled out running for re-election, but he did not compete for the Monmouth County nomination. Two other candidates, Patricia Campos-Medina, a union leader, and Larry Hamm, a Newark-based social justice activist, won nominal support Saturday. (Mr. Hamm withdrew from contention Saturday, a county leader told delegates, but his name remained on the ballot.)
The federal prosecution of Mr. Menendez has provided a sordid backdrop to the race, contributing to its early intensity and adding fuel to Mr. Kim’s pledge to interrupt the state’s entrenched political patronage system and restore dignity to the party.
“The challenges we face are deep to the bone of our country,” Mr. Kim said in a speech to delegates, adding, “Ask yourself: We have wars abroad and turmoil here. Who is ready to lead our country?”
Ms. Murphy, a first-time candidate who was a registered Republican until 2014, has played a key policy role in the six years that her husband, Philip D. Murphy, has been governor.
With backing from the governor — who has nearly two years left in his term — Ms. Murphy won out-of-the-gate support from many of the state’s most powerful Democrats. She has also been endorsed by dozens of Black clergy leaders and a handful of labor unions, yet polls have suggested that she is struggling to gain traction with rank-and-file voters.
She and her team have emphasized the potentially historic nature of a victory by Ms. Murphy, who, if elected, would be the first woman to represent New Jersey in the Senate.
“We need ticked-off moms who have Jersey grit to go to Washington, D.C., and get stuff done,” Ms. Murphy said.
But Saturday’s 265-181 loss to Mr. Kim on her home turf is likely to lead to questions about her ability to sway voters farther afield.
The event itself laid bare the exceptional nature of the contest.
The governor, a voting member of the Monmouth County Democratic organization, participated in the convention, as did the Murphys’ oldest son, Josh, who is a committee member. Before the candidates addressed the delegates, the governor shook hands as he navigated through the crowd, but kept largely to himself toward the back of the room.
Mr. Kim appeared to be a familiar face to many in the room as well. His South Jersey district takes in about 30 percent of Monmouth County, and he often boasts about the number of town hall meetings he has held — 71 — since taking office in 2019.
But he is far less well-known in the state’s northern, vote-rich urban communities closest to New York City, where Ms. Murphy has been campaigning heavily ahead of the June primary.
A poll released last week showed Mr. Kim leading Ms. Murphy statewide, 32 percent to 20 percent, yet trailing her among Black and Latino Democratic voters. Monmouth County, which includes the oceanfront communities of Asbury Park and Belmar and, farther inland, Freehold, the birthplace of the rock icon Bruce Springsteen, is about 75 percent white.
Democratic bosses in many of New Jersey’s largest counties have almost total control over who is selected as the party’s nominee in competitive primary races. This designation brings with it an almost unassailable benefit: a preferential position on the ballot, known in New Jersey as “the line.”
Ms. Murphy has locked up support in many of those counties.
Monmouth County, however, holds the first — and, arguably, the most transparent — Democratic primary selection process. Mr. Kim’s victory is expected to give him a prominent spot on the ballot in Monmouth County’s 53 towns.
The delegates gathered on Saturday were both highly informed and hyper engaged. Most had been elected as Democratic Party committee members in their voting precincts; others held public office or led local party organizations, making them eligible to vote.
“We’re the people who knock on the doors,” said Liz deBeer, 61, a retired public-school teacher and vice chairwoman of the Democratic organization in her town, Fair Haven. “We’re the people who are writing the postcards, holding the fund-raisers.”
Mr. Kim and Ms. Murphy both lobbied hard for votes in the run-up to the convention. Delegates said they had gotten text messages, phone calls and single-spaced letters outlining each candidate’s qualifications.
Susan Meltsner, a Democratic district leader in Manalapan, N.J., said the packed room was a testament to the strength of democracy in Monmouth County.
“We’re packed in like sardines. We’re sweating. We’re risking Covid,” Ms. Meltsner, 69, said. “But to me, to not allow people to do this is criminal.”
Ballots could be cast only in person, and all voters had an equal say.
For example, Representative Frank Pallone, who is in his 18th term in Congress, holds multiple leadership roles in the state and county party, including Democratic chairman of Long Branch. But, like everyone else, he was eligible to cast a single ballot.
The excitement was palpable.
“This is the most important part of democracy — where we as Democrats can have really great conversations about qualified candidates,” said Tricia Maguire, a member of the Democratic State Committee who runs a consulting firm that advises and coaches women interested in running for office.
Ms. deBeer said she supported Mr. Kim; Ms. Maguire was voting for Ms. Murphy.
“It is so much easier to lift women up if there’s someone reaching down to pull them up,” Ms. Maguire said of her support for Ms. Murphy.
A skilled fund-raiser who has helped to lead both her husband’s campaigns for governor, Ms. Murphy has raised $3.2 million since entering the race in November. Mr. Kim, who jumped in the day after Mr. Menendez was indicted in September, has taken in $1.7 million in the past three months, federal fund-raising records show.
Because Mr. Kim began raising funds earlier, and was able to transfer money left over from earlier congressional races, both candidates have about the same amount of money on hand to spend: $2.7 million.
But roughly $1 million of the total donations Ms. Murphy has raised can be used only in a general election, not the primary.
Saturday’s loss was the third political blow of the week for Ms. Murphy.
On Wednesday a fund-raising arm of the state chapter of the National Organization for Women endorsed Mr. Kim. A news release from the group’s political action committee stated that it “would prefer to endorse women candidates,” but noted that Mr. Kim had “worked tirelessly for pay equity and reproductive rights.”
On Thursday, Indivisible, a left-leaning national group that formed in opposition to former President Donald J. Trump, also endorsed Mr. Kim. The congressman had already been endorsed by at least eight of the organization’s New Jersey chapters, which are made up largely of women, including many who marched in Washington in 2017 and then worked to flip the U.S. House of Representatives to Democratic control. In New Jersey, three House Republicans lost their seats the following year to Democrats, who included Mr. Kim.
Ezra Levin, a co-executive director of Indivisible, said the group planned to harness “excess energy” among Democrats across the country who are worried about the outcome of the presidential election.
“The New Jersey primary is about more than New Jersey,” he said in an interview. “It’s about democracy.”
Before joining Congress, Mr. Kim worked in the State Department and in Afghanistan, as a civilian adviser. He also served as a national security adviser during former President Barack Obama’s term.
Ms. deBeer said that she admired Ms. Murphy and was a supporter of her husband’s broad policy goals.
Her vote for Mr. Kim, she said, hinged on his national security expertise and his proven record of winning races against well-funded opponents, in a district that is not typically friendly to Democrats. She also said she was fundamentally opposed to the party boss system and its role in helping to give Ms. Murphy an early edge in the race.
“At the end of the day, I ask myself: ‘Who is the more qualified candidate for this position at this time?’
“The answer is Andy Kim.”