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Is Andy Kim Too Nice for New Jersey?

Or maybe being a nice guy is an advantage when you’re trying to succeed a scandal-plagued senator.

Democratic Rep. Andy Kim of New Jersey
“People in New Jersey tolerated a lot of BS from our politics and our politicians,” said Democratic congressman and Senate candidate Andy Kim, “and I think they just hit that breaking point. I hit it.” Tom Williams/AP

Andy Kim, New Jersey Democratic congressman and Senate candidate, knows that people think his image is a strange match with his state. “When I first started running for Congress,” he told me during a recent interview, “it was not infrequent that people would say some variation of ‘You are too nice to be in Jersey politics.’”

That nice-guy brand followed him to Washington, where Kim was famously photographed helping to clean up the Capitol Rotunda after the Jan. 6 insurrection. Now, locked in a tough primary against New Jersey first lady Tammy Murphy to fill the seat currently held by indicted Sen. Robert Menendez, Kim is so used to being asked whether he is too nice for New Jersey that he has a quick response: “I’d say I am 12 points up right now in the last poll.”

Indeed, Kim’s early and surprising success against a formidable primary opponent suggests that voters in New Jersey — the third-rudest state in the country, according to one survey, and a place where politics is generally associated with hard-charging leaders, powerful party bosses, scandal-plagued officials and nepotistic political practices — might be looking for something different.

Rep. Andy Kim cleans up debris and personal belongings after protesters stormed the Capitol in Washington.
Kim’s nice-guy brand followed him to Washington, where he was famously photographed helping to clean up the Capitol Rotunda after the Jan. 6 insurrection. Andrew Harnik/AP

A son of Korean immigrants, Kim is a Rhodes Scholar and former national security official. When he first ran for Congress in 2018 — in a central Jersey district that was carried by Donald Trump two years earlier — Kim quickly saw just how ugly New Jersey politics can get. During that campaign, Republicans ran an ad that featured Kim’s name in a font Democrats later said was called “Chop Suey” and is most associated with Chinese takeout food.

Kim represented not just an ideological backlash to Trump but a tonal one too. He had assumed upon entering politics that his nice-guy image could be an impediment. “I thought that was actually going to be my biggest weakness,” he recalled. “I’m not central casting for what you think a congressman from a district Trump won would look like. I’m not central casting of what a senator from New Jersey would look like.”

“What I’ve come to learn,” Kim said, “is that what I thought was potentially going to be my biggest weakness has turned out to probably be my biggest strength.”

Contributing to the rough-and-tumble nature of New Jersey politics is the influence of one of the nation’s last true machine apparatuses — a system that gives certain party bosses considerable power over how the state party operates, which candidates can move up and which politicians get ousted. Throughout our conversation, Kim lambasted the power that party bosses wield in New Jersey, saying they were attempting to keep down the party’s activist base. He described politics in the state as “broken.”

His main grievance is the so-called “line,” an unusual ballot procedure that, in nearly all New Jersey counties, allows the local party’s endorsed set of candidates to run on the same primary ballot line. Some counties require conventions that allow activists to select who gets the line in their county, while others give considerably more power to a local party boss to make the selection.

The process often gives candidates with deep connections to these party bosses the inside track to winning primaries. And though Murphy is running for office for the first time, she is likely to win the line position in a host of key Democratic counties where the party chairs have already endorsed her. (Menendez seems unlikely to seek reelection, but he has not publicly stated his intentions. He has denied the allegations against him, and his Senate office did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)

To Kim, the spiteful political culture that is synonymous with New Jersey is a direct product of the influence of local machines. “I’ve been frustrated for a long time about Jersey politics,” he said. “When you have a political system that is centered around political bosses, power and toughness, it creates this kind of sense of invincibility. It kind of promotes people with a certain type of character in that way and it kind of feeds into [the perception] in some way.”

“People are done with that,” he added. “People in New Jersey tolerated a lot of BS from our politics and our politicians, and I think they just hit that breaking point. I hit it.”

In a recent debate hosted by the New Jersey Globe, Murphy looked to deflect focus on the line by saying the candidates should “just move forward with the ground rules as we know them.” She was noncommittal about ways to change New Jersey politics, adding, “If there are improvements to be made, then … let’s have the improvements.”

Her campaign has been quick to note that Kim himself has sought the same party-line endorsements he is now attacking. “Congressman Kim happily ran on the county line with party support in every single election he’s ever run in,” said Alex Altman, a Murphy spokesperson, who also described a lawsuit that Kim (along with two congressional candidates) has filed to block use of the line as a “sad hypocritical stunt.”

EMILYs List, the Democratic group working to elect pro-choice women to office and one of Murphy’s top supporters, said women like Murphy “face a disproportionate number of barriers when running for office” and rebuffed the idea that she is running in her husband’s shadow.

New Jersey First Lady and Senate candidate Tammy Murphy
Tammy Murphy’s campaign has been quick to note that Kim himself has sought the same party-line endorsements he is now attacking. Julio Cortez/AP

Kim’s supporters, however, have cast the first lady as the embodiment of the kind of New Jersey politics they hope to change. “It’s corruption and nepotism and then this nice-guy Andy,” said Maggie Savoca, a Kim supporter and local chapter leader of the national progressive organization Indivisible. “I am hoping he can start this trend to break up the old boys’ club, to break up the county line and to get these committees to realize their bread and butter comes from rank-and-file Democrats.”

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That pitch is getting traction. Kim isn’t just leading in the polls; he has also won three straight county convention votes for the line position by riding a groundswell of activist support. For now, it appears that a very un-Jersey nice guy may be exactly what at least some New Jersey voters want.

“Politics in New Jersey,” Kim said, “has already changed” in the wake of the Menendez indictment. “The question is whether political leaders in New Jersey will realize that the electorate has already moved on and said, ‘We’re done with whatever was before.’”

Dan Merica is a national political reporter who was most recently at The Messenger, where he covered campaigns and Democratic politics. He reported on elections for over a decade at CNN, where he was a finalist for the Livingston Award for his work covering the Trump team’s effort to overturn the 2020 election.