Fetterman backs Andy Kim as Democrats scramble to keep Menendez's Senate seat in New Jersey

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FILE - Senator John Fetterman, D-Pa, speaks at a campaign event held for Pennsylvania judicial candidates at Snipes Farm in Morrisville, Pa., Saturday, Oct. 28, 2023. Fetterman endorsed Rep. Andy Kim of New Jersey in his campaign to succeed Sen. Bob Menendez in New Jersey.(AP Photo/Ryan Collerd, File)

TRENTON, N.J. – Pennsylvania U.S. Sen. John Fetterman has backed Rep. Andy Kim in the congressman's bid to win a contested primary for New Jersey's Senate seat, as Democrats jockey to push indicted Sen. Bob Menendez out of office.

Fetterman was an early proponent of calling for Menendez's ouster from Congress after federal prosecutors charged Menendez, his wife and business associates with taking bribes in cash and gold bars in exchange for helping the government of Egypt — and, in a later indictment, Qatar as well.

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Menendez and the other defendants have pleaded not guilty, and the senator has vowed to fight the charges. Unlike the first time he was indicted — charges that ultimately led to a hung jury in 2017 — Menendez has lost support within the Democratic Party in his home state, where his influence was once virtually unassailable.

Fetterman called Kim, a three-term congressman from southern New Jersey's 3rd District, a man of integrity and “deep honor." Without mentioning Menendez by name, Fetterman drew an implied contrast with him.

“I feel very secure knowing that he has no gold bars underneath his mattress and won’t ever be accused of being a foreign agent for Egypt or Qatar,” he said.

It's unclear the extent to which endorsements will resonate with voters, but they can help campaigns with fundraising, generate a sense of momentum or inevitability and project strength.

Fetterman's endorsement comes amid a pitched internal struggle among New Jersey Democrats who have called for Menendez's ouster and are competing to succeed him.

Menendez hasn't said if he'll run again and has so far withstood calls for his resignation.

The June primary is shaping up as a battle, so far, between Kim and the state's first lady, Tammy Murphy. Other Democrats are also campaigning in the race, though Murphy and Kim have gone tit-for-tat with a number of high-profile endorsements, and each has raised millions so far.

Murphy unveiled the backing this week of officials in the Democratic stronghold of Atlantic City as well as the state trooper's union. She's already received backing from influential county party chairmen whose support is key to how the ballot is drafted, with preferred candidates getting favorable placement.

Fetterman's backing on Thursday seemed to come in response.

“To have someone who is a sitting senator, who knows the job, knows the role of a legislator at this moment, and also just understands the crazy, chaotic moment that we live in right now, that’s something that stands out, and I’m glad to have his support,” Kim said in an emailed statement.

Murphy's campaign said in an emailed statement that she's traveling the state to earn support from voters. She will “stand up for key Democratic values in DC,” said campaign spokesperson Alexandra Altman.

Fetterman joins fellow Pennsylvanian Gov. Josh Shapiro in wading into the race. Shapiro has raised money for Murphy, according to her campaign.

Also seeking or considering a run on the Democratic side are long-time civil rights organizer Lawrence Hamm and labor leader Patricia Campos-Medina.

“This race for U.S. Senate is very contentious now,” Hamm said, referring to Murphy and Kim. “We know at least two of these candidates are expected to spend millions.”

The GOP primary is also still shaping up. Mendham Mayor Christine Serrano Glassner, a declared candidate, said through a spokesperson on Friday that the Democratic Party “enabled” corruption by supporting Menendez for years.

Keeping New Jersey's Senate seat in Democratic hands is crucial for the party, which has narrow control of the chamber heading into this fall's election. New Jersey hasn't elected a Republican to the Senate since 1972.

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