Murphy, 58, responded to that Wednesday by announcing a high-profile 2024 bid for indicted Democrat Bob Menendez’s Senate seat. As if the drama of Menendez’s refusal to resign amid accusations of foreign bribery wasn’t enough, Murphy’s entry sets off a yearlong battle for one of the most powerful jobs in Washington and a seat key Democrat in a closely divided Senate.
The wealthy former Republican has spent the past six years helping run New Jersey, benefiting greatly from her notoriety with a fraction of the attention her husband gets. Now she’s using her perch to take advantage of the state’s unique and increasingly doomed system of political patronage, which virtually elects candidates before voters have a say. A victory would solidify Murphy’s name as one of New Jersey’s most enduring after her husband leaves office in 2026 after two terms.
Menendez, who has denied any wrongdoing, has called his campaign a “blatant disenfranchisement scheme,” while his main rival for the Democratic nomination, Rep. Andy Kim, emphasizes that he can raise money while like Murphy but that, unlike her, he also has to resume his elective functions.
Murphy, who was not available for an interview, pushed back against criticism that she was on the fast track to replace Menendez.
“I’m really going to win everyone’s vote and I’m going to make sure that this is a broad coalition and that I’m truly rooted in communities across the state,” she said Thursday on NJ Spotlight News.
Menendez has not said whether he will seek another term. But if he decides to do so, he will have difficulty getting out of the primary. Shortly after Murphy announced her candidacy, Democrats in Menendez’s Hudson County power base declared their support for her, a deadly and personal blow for an incumbent who grew up in the county and effectively ran his political machine for years. Democrats in Camden County also supported her, a loss for Kim, who lives nearby in South Jersey. Other leaders of key organizations in several densely populated counties supported her Friday.
“This is how our system works and she benefits from it. And that may be how we see our first woman in the United States Senate,” said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.
The Evolution of a Conservative
Tammy Murphy grew up in Virginia Beach, Virginia, in a family that owned car dealerships. She pursued a career in finance after graduating from the University of Virginia and first met her husband in the 1980s while they worked at Goldman Sachs, although their romance was not It only started several years later.
Raised in a Republican family, Murphy continued to vote in Republican Party primaries even during the Obama administration, according to the New York Times, when her husband was U.S. ambassador to Germany. She even voted in the Republican primary in 2014, while her husband was openly laying the groundwork for his first gubernatorial campaign in 2017.
“While Tammy Murphy was a Republican for years, I worked to elect Democrats up and down the ballot and fought in Washington to help hard-working families in New Jersey,” Menendez said in a statement shortly after Murphy’s campaign launch Wednesday. .
His spending shifted primarily to Democrats well before 2014, but records show one donor did not pledge allegiance to any party. In 2002, for example, she gave $1,000 to Republican Sen. Diane Allen, who ran against Phil Murphy’s lieutenant governor two decades later in 2021.
That same year – 2002, a year after the September 11 attacks – Tammy Murphy donated $20,000 to the New Jersey Republican State Committee, according to the nonprofit OpenSecrets. But that year, she also gave to Hillary Clinton’s New York Senate campaign and to outgoing New Jersey Sen. Bob Torricelli, a Democrat who has become a critic of Menendez since he left office.
The Murphys have become an unlikely power couple. Phil Murphy was considered a popular second choice when he announced his campaign in 2016 to succeed Chris Christie, but he later became the de facto candidate thanks to his finances and the fortuitous withdrawal of the two gubernatorial frontrunners.
Once elected, he was quick to point out that his wife would play a key role in his administration, even though she did not receive a salary. If she’s not with him at a public event, she’s often hustling or working behind the scenes on policy or fundraising. During the pandemic, for example, it launched a relief fund that distributed $56 million to more than 500 organizations.
While Tammy Murphy developed political skills as a partner in her husband’s administration, progressives decried the nepotism aspect of her campaign. She has not held elected office or held any other government position, but Walsh emphasized that this is not unusual. Several former U.S. senators from New Jersey had never held office before, such as Bill Bradley, Jon Corzine and Frank Lautenberg.
Besides her husband’s political influence, part of Murphy’s appeal to powerful Democrats is simple: She’s been there, and they know her. Kim, a newcomer to New Jersey politics, has not had the statewide presence of the first lady.
Somerset County Democratic Party Chairwoman Peg Schaffer, who endorsed Murphy, called her “impressive.” She compared Murphy to Clinton and Eleanor Roosevelt, “women who were very supportive and equal partners with their elected husbands who should be respected in their own right.”
Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop said “there was a sense of comfort and familiarity” with Murphy and that she had demonstrated knowledge of local issues.
“No one else has expressed interest in running here and understands that,” he said.
Progressives demand a “fair chance”
But some progressives are skeptical that a state of 9 million people couldn’t produce a Democrat more qualified for the job and unrelated to its most powerful official.
There is also a touch of irony in the fact that the governor’s wife is replacing a senator who helped install her son, who had little political experience, as a member of Congress.
“We all know the connections. If your mom or dad is a plumber and you have connections in the plumbing industry, you will get a job as a plumber,” said Winn Khuong, executive director of the progressive group Action Together New Jersey. “But this should not happen in public service. This should be open to everyone. Everyone should have a chance. And New Jersey is not giving us a fair chance.
Murphy highlighted some of her policy accomplishments during her campaign launch, including her work to reduce racial disparities in maternal mortality. Murphy founded Nurture NJ to reduce infant mortality in New Jersey and its large racial disparity, with black mothers far more likely to die from childbirth-related complications. That could help him attract black voters, a large part of the Democratic base, even as much of the party’s left wing bucks the establishment in supporting Kim.
“I hope she takes this opportunity to partner with community and Black-led institutions around Black maternal health care,” said the Rev. Charles Boyer, pastor of Greater Mt. Zion AME Church in Trenton and progressive activist. “His involvement in this issue has certainly brought a lot of attention to this topic that otherwise would not have been the case.”
Murphy also carries some political baggage. For nearly two years, she has run a political nonprofit called Stronger Fairer Forward that promotes her husband’s policies but has refused disclosure requests from its donors. She was named in a lawsuit against state police for allegedly refusing to allow a trooper to express breast milk on the couple’s property. Murphy said in a statement that any characterization that she is not supportive and accommodating of a new mother’s needs “is outrageous and categorically false.”
And the women’s soccer team she and her husband co-own, Gotham FC, was found several years ago to have poor living and playing conditions, prompting Murphy to become more involved in the club, which won the league championship this month.
Murphy didn’t receive much attention following one of the biggest scandals of her husband’s tenure during his first term. Katie Brennan, a volunteer for Phil Murphy’s 2017 campaign, claimed that one of his top staffers sexually assaulted her. She tried to talk to the governor and first lady about it, emailing them about a “sensitive issue,” but they didn’t follow through with the promised meeting.
Brennan, who now works for New York Governor Kathy Hochul’s administration, said in an interview that she expected more from Tammy Murphy given that she publicly revealed at a women’s march that she had was the victim of sexual assault at university. Brennan is not the only woman who has claimed responsibility for a toxic campaign environment, and Tammy Murphy has been active in this campaign. Phil Murphy called her “the de facto chair of campaign finance.”
“She never responded, she didn’t do anything. She participated in the Women’s March and shared her own heartbreaking story and I’m so sorry this happened to her,” Brennan said. “But when she was approached and given the opportunity to lead and help others, she didn’t do it. Time and time again, she has failed the people of New Jersey.
If elected, Murphy said she intends to continue her work on the environment and maternal health, as well as focus on affordability, abortion protections and tackling to the gun lobby.
“I believe with all my heart that democracy is at stake right now,” she said. “It’s an all-hands-on-deck moment, and I can’t wait to prove and show that I’m the right choice at the right time.”