How grassroots liberals, Joe Biden, and Donald Trump might transform Democratic politics in one of the bluest states in the union

The powerful political apparatus in New Jersey may be about to collapse. This week, a federal court in Trenton is expected to make a decision about a lawsuit that seeks to restrict the power of local powerful people over party primaries and the nomination process. But first lady Tammy Murphy’s decision to halt her candidacy on Sunday has called into question how urgent it is to make a choice before the primary on June 4. Andy Kim, a Democrat running for the Senate, is requesting a preliminary injunction from the court to remove the so-called party line, a voting arrangement that permits county officials to give their preferred primary candidates preference on the ballot. With the state’s off-year elections approaching, a decision in favor of the South Jersey congressman would hasten the dissolution of a system that has for decades permitted hedonistic party bosses to control the composition and character of New Jersey politics. The decision would only apply to the June primary, though. In the Garden State, there has been a battle for electoral fairness and openness for over a century.

Over the course of the 20th century, the machine regained dominance after reformers experienced some notable early victories. The system seemed to be rigged in favor of the tabloid star-turned-politician Donald Trump by the time he entered the scene in 2015. However, even in a state where he was defeated by almost 500,000 votes in 2016, Trump’s rise to the presidency set off a popular uprising that ultimately placed the “party line” in the crosshairs for proponents of good governance. Following the incident at the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, President Joe Biden and national Democrats adopted a “pro-democracy” strategy that helped push the topic farther into the public eye. Because of his primary against Murphy, Kim’s lawsuit—which is essentially a carbon copy of one that was first filed three years ago—had garnered national attention. After losing her bid on Sunday, the wife of two-term governor Phil Murphy stated that she would not “waste resources tearing down a fellow Democrat.”

Several candidates, including Kim, are running to succeed Sen. Bob Menendez, a longstanding Democratic incumbent who is currently facing a broad range of allegations of corruption that could send him to prison for an extended period of time. Though he once more hinted at the idea of running as an independent this summer, Menendez declared on Thursday that he would not seek reelection in the Democratic primary. Murphy received a barrage of endorsements upon entering the primary in November, roughly two months after Kim, many of which either assured or strongly hinted that she would be awarded a prime spot on the ballot – and a potentially decisive advantage over Kim before the campaign had officially kicked off. What could be a generational realignment in a state historically dominated by powerful party bosses in the manner that many Americans associate with a bygone era—reminiscent of New York’s Tammany Hall of the mid-19th century—was sparked by Murphy’s decision to run for the seat and the speed with which local pooh-bahs lined up behind her.

Over the past few decades, those structures have largely collapsed elsewhere, but New Jersey Democratic leaders have managed to hold onto their distinct influence, largely because of “the line,” which is shorthand for the valuable ballot real estate held by county party officials, many of whom are also unelected. It is customary to list party-endorsed candidates’ names in a single, conspicuous column for a range of positions. Those who are not selected for “the line” are dispersed over the voting paper, abandoned in what is sometimes called “Ballot Siberia.” Reformers and left-leaning Democratic organizations that don’t have the support of the established establishment have long decried the practice, branding it anti-democratic and equivalent to voting suppression.

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