5 things we want to learn in Monday’s NJ Senate debate

The three Democratic candidates for New Jersey’s open U.S. Senate seat are arguably all from the party’s progressive wing. But Monday night, WNYC “Morning Edition” host Michael Hill will help voters explore what sets them apart.

Hill will moderate a debate featuring Andy Kim, Patricia Campos-Medina and Larry Hamm, who are all seeking the Democratic nomination for Sen. Bob Menendez’s seat. The incumbent, whose corruption trial begins the same day as the primary debate, hasn’t yet said if he’ll run but isn’t competing in the primary.

Here are five things to listen for in the debate, sponsored by the ACLU of New Jersey, the League of Women Voters of New Jersey and Salvation & Social Justice. Video of the debate streams live on at 6 p.m. Monday, and audio will air on 93.9 FM and at 8 p.m.

Can Andy Kim be knocked out?

Kim, a three-term congressmember, is considered the likely winner of both the June 4 primary and the election in November. He deftly beat the then-presumed front-runner, first lady Tammy Murphy, when he successfully challenged New Jersey’s ballot design in federal court. That headed off Murphy’s preferential placement on the ballot, and she dropped out of the race just days before a judge ruled the ballot design couldn’t be used in this year’s Democratic primary.

A Republican has not won a Senate seat in New Jersey since 1972.

Kim, who was elected to the House in 2018, has built a campaign with grassroots support and also raised $6.9 million by the end of March — far more than his competitors. So Campos-Medina and Hamm would need to say something during the debate that knocks Kim out of the top position.

Could Kim’s image as a reformer backfire?

Kim came to national attention after the Jan. 6, 2021 riot at the Capitol, when he was photographed picking up trash from the rotunda floor late at night. His campaign has built on that image with a strong message about his integrity and desire to fight corruption.

Campos-Medina and Hamm joined Kim in the fight against New Jersey’s ballot design and the party machines that endorsed Tammy Murphy. But Kim now has the endorsements of those same political machines, which Campos-Medina and Hamm have called on him to reject. They will need to disrupt Kim’s popular message on fighting corruption if they are to gain any ground.

Who will reel in Tammy Murphy’s supporters?

One of Murphy’s greatest strengths during her short-lived campaign was the appeal that a woman has never been elected to represent New Jersey in the Senate.

“We need ticked-off moms who have Jersey grit to go to Washington D.C. to get stuff done,” Murphy said in her campaign speech to Monmouth County Democrats in February.

The question is whether Campos-Medina, as the last female Democrat in the race, can leverage the same sentiment to capture some of Murphy’s support. It’s an uphill battle because many of the establishment Democrats who said they were supporting Murphy because it was time for a woman to represent New Jersey in the Senate are now supporting Kim.

All of the candidates will need to make the case that they’re looking out for New Jersey’s women — possibly on issues of abortion rights, or even Murphy’s signature issue of maternal health.

Will the war in Gaza cause a problem for Kim?

College campuses have erupted in protests against the Israeli military’s actions in Gaza. There is disagreement about the issue among progressive Democrats, generally — including among the three Senate candidates. Andy Kim waited until Murphy dropped out of the race before he came out in support of a cease-fire. And he voted for the military aid package to Israel in late April. On NJ PBS’ “Chat Box with David Cruz,” both Hamm and Campos-Medina said they oppose sending more military aid to Israel.

New Jersey is home to the country’s largest Palestinian community and one of its largest Jewish populations. This issue has the potential to upend a political race, especially if voter turnout is low and one constituency out-organizes the opposition.

What issue matters most to New Jerseyans?

It’s affordability, stupid. The economy can be doing well and the state can add jobs, but wages have not kept up with rising costs for a very long time. Inflation, high property taxes and the lack of affordable housing and starter homes are key problems facing many families. And New Jersey communities don’t share those burdens evenly — with Black families lagging far behind their white neighbors in accumulating generational wealth.

Many New Jersey taxpayers also saw their pocketbooks hit when the Trump-era Congress capped the State and Local Tax Deduction, or SALT, which effectively let residents get reimbursed for some of their local taxes in their federal tax filings. Kim supports repealing the cap, but some progressives say SALT focuses too much on relief for the wealthy.

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