Outwardly at least, the Tammy Murphy for Senate campaign brain trust has maintained perspective and no one has reached toward the panic button in the wake of an unexpected beatdown it suffered at the hands of the Monmouth County Democratic Committee.
There surely were private recriminations but they didn’t spill over into the public debate. The decisive loss of the party endorsement and coveted county line ballot designation suffered by the First Lady to Third District Congressman Andy Kim appears to have been a case of overestimating her strength, underestimating Kim’s and failing to appreciate the depth of resentment over the high-handed action of party leaders who rushed to clamber onto the Murphy bandwagon on a path to locking down the nomination.
A bloody nose is often the painful but necessary reminder that buying in to foregone conclusions — particularly in dealing with the wide variety of personalities and judgments of county committee members — is flirting with disaster.
Kim’s 18-point victory was decisive and impressive and he and his campaign can celebrate it as an early affirmation of their strategy of positioning him as an enemy of bossism, backroom deals and swapping favors and rewards.
While Kim was first to declare his candidacy before the ink was dry on the Federal indictment of Sen. Bob Menendez on bribery and conspiracy charges, it was Tammy Murphy’s campaign that attempted to stampede the party into uniting behind her by orchestrating an immediate flurry of endorsements from county chairs, legislative leaders and a range of party establishment figures.
The implicit promise of her securing the county line along with the acknowledged political power at the disposal of her governor husband would be sufficient, they believed, to warn potential competitors that a challenge would be foolish.
It was an epic and embarrassing miscalculation, driven home forcefully by her home county Democrats.
Her campaign will regroup certainly and look forward with some optimism to the contests yet to come in the larger vote rich counties of the north where she has already gathered leadership endorsements.
Monmouth with 140,000 registered Democratic voters, is by no means a decisive force in primary elections.
The Murphy campaign already has endorsements in hand in Bergen (254,000 registered), Essex (297,000), Hudson (218,000), Middlesex (241,000), Union (177,000) and Camden (180,000). She’s won the convention in Passaic County (128,000).
Cushions of that magnitude, if leadership delivers on its public pledges, will provide a soft landing, indeed.
And, that leadership has every incentive to fulfill their promises.
While Murphy’s nomination is at stake, so too are the reputations, validity and strength as statewide power brokers of the county political establishments.
Words — once given — must be kept, lest influence, patronage, and access to the highest levels of government will vanish.
Kim, in their view, is an upstart intent on overturning the established order and in light of the results in Monmouth the potential exists for his crusade against those with their hands on the levers of political power could spread.
For them, delivering on their endorsements and achieving victories in the half dozen counties with nearly 1.5 million registered Democrats, is crucial.
The Murphy campaign operatives understand that for the county leadership failure is not an option. It is this understanding and the history supporting it that provides comfort and avoids losing perspective and giving in to panic due to a loss in Monmouth.
They will do whatever is necessary to shore up any weaknesses and, while understanding Kim will make some inroads, will devote energy and resources to minimizing them.
There is no question that Kim is a formidable candidate, experienced, articulate and well-funded. He is not a fringe gadfly of the type who so often compete in party primaries but who are just as often ignored, ridiculed and dismissed out of hand.
He has tapped into a discontent felt by many in the party rank and file that they’ve been cut out of he process and treated indifferently.
They share Kim’s vision of the county line as unfair and undemocratic with its concentration of power in the hands of a few and a major impediment to bringing in new adherents with fresh and innovative approaches.
To supporters of the county line practice, it is a necessary and vital tool to assure that the party supports and nominates the strongest candidates with the greater potential for victory in November.
No matter on which side one stands, the county line is a fact of political life in New Jersey and will continue to be. Voluntarily surrendering it is wishful thinking.
The Legislature, many of whose members owe their office to the system, will not be the agent of change and the courts have demonstrated a reluctance to involve itself in settling what is an internal partisan political dispute.
In the short term, it is only by running off-line and winning that the system will be questioned seriously — a task which Kim has undertaken despite its long history of turning aside challenges.
For the Murphy campaign, the defeat in Monmouth was a temporary setback, an unseen pothole in what seemed to be an otherwise smooth road to the nomination.
Their perspective may have been momentarily shaken and the temptation to panic resisted by the understanding their comfort zone is intact and awaits.
Carl Golden is a senior contributing analyst with the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Stockton University.