It took Tammy Murphy only a few weeks to secure the support of key Democratic leaders in New Jersey for her Senate candidacy. In a state where party leaders wield considerable influence in elections, this backing typically ensures her nomination and grants the New Jersey first lady a preferential position on the primary ballot, just below President Joe Biden in many crucial counties.
However, Murphy is leaving nothing to chance in her race against Rep. Andy Kim and is now exploring the possibility of leveraging New Jersey’s distinctive primary ballot system to gain an additional advantage.
Sources familiar with private Democratic discussions reveal that Murphy is contemplating appearing alongside Biden on the primary ballot throughout the state, even in counties where she lacks party endorsements. Although a seemingly minor visual distinction, this move could prompt many voters to overlook Kim, who would be relegated to a separate column without the president.
Executing such a strategy would necessitate the consent of the Biden campaign, granting the president indirect but substantial influence over the high-profile primary to fill the seat of indicted Sen. Bob Menendez.
The outcome will serve as a test of Murphy’s influence, given her extensive history as a Democratic player and her husband, Gov. Phil Murphy’s, involvement as the finance chair for the Democratic National Committee and his role in the Obama administration.
The Biden campaign states that it is focused on securing ballot access in the state but does not plan to intervene in the Senate primary. According to Kevin Munoz, a spokesperson for the Biden campaign, “The campaign is focused on our ballot access work in the state and look forward to talking to New Jersey Democrats across the state as we work to place the President on the Democratic primary ballot.”
The Murphy campaign has refrained from commenting on these considerations.
In a state where Democrats hold a nearly one million-voter registration advantage, winning the Democratic primary often translates to a straightforward victory in the November general election. New Jersey has not sent a Republican to the Senate in over 50 years.
Although the significance of ballot placement in a primary election may be underestimated, New Jersey’s unique ballot design significantly impacts the outcomes of races.
In 19 out of 21 counties, primary ballots group candidates endorsed by county political parties together, presenting them as more credible to voters. Candidates without party endorsements end up appearing alone on the ballot, diminishing their perceived credibility.
Murphy gained an early advantage by securing endorsements from party leaders in densely populated Democratic counties. However, some Democratic county parties hold conventions where a limited number of elected party members can choose the endorsed candidates, potentially giving Kim an opportunity to secure favorable ballot placement in certain regions.
Nevertheless, candidates have the autonomy to decide whom they want to bracket with on the ballot. The president, occupying the top spot, could choose to align with Murphy in all counties, irrespective of local party endorsements. The Murphys’ longstanding connection with Biden, including Phil Murphy’s role as a former ambassador to Germany in the Obama administration, could facilitate such an agreement.
Bracketing exclusively with Biden may mitigate the impact of a potential county convention loss for Tammy Murphy, as she would still appear alongside the president. However, this agreement may become inconsequential if Murphy sweeps the county conventions, maintaining the traditional ballot line with the president on top.
While there is precedent for high-profile candidates running “off the line” to emphasize support for down-ballot candidates, such a move is not without political risks.
It could upset party leaders who would have preferred their candidates to align with the president, and questions may arise about whether a rival Biden-Murphy line would also include county and local candidates, potentially posing a threat to those supported by the local county party.
Katey Sabo, a spokesperson for the Kim campaign, criticizes Murphy’s consideration of exclusive bracketing with Biden as an “undemocratic effort to rig this Senate primary.” Sabo suggests that the First Lady should agree to have all Senate candidates grouped together on the ballot for a fair and transparent choice by voters.