First lady Tammy Murphy withdrew her candidacy for the U.S. Senate on Sunday, ending her bid to become the first woman elected to represent New Jersey in the Senate.

Murphy, who lagged chief rival Rep. Andy Kim in polls as they both sought to succeed the indicted Sen. Bob Menendez, faced an uncertain path to victory amid Kim’s legal challenge to the county line, which groups party-endorsed candidates on the ballot in a way Kim and others have argued is unconstitutional.

“It is clear to me that continuing in this race will involve waging a very divisive and negative campaign, which I am not willing to do,” Murphy said in a video posted to social media.

The first lady’s campaigned on gun control issues and abortion while pointing to work on maternal and infant mortality work she’s done as part of Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration, but her messaging on those issues was drowned out by accusations of nepotism.

“Instead of talking about process and politics, my campaign has been about solutions for families and a vision for the next generation,” she said. “New Jersey’s next senator must focus on the issues of our time and not be mired in tearing others down while dividing the people of our party and state.”

Democratic chairs in numerous counties endorsed Murphy shortly after her campaign’s launch in November, and some moved to unilaterally award her their organizational lines, drawing protests from opponents who claimed the governor’s influence played a role.

Though Kim has won most counties where Democratic county organizations awarded lines by a secret vote of their full membership, Murphy has won backing in counties with less open processes, and the latter account for a majority of the state’s Democratic primary voters.

Kim challenged the practice in federal court, charging New Jersey’s ballot design violates the constitutional right to free association, among other things. A judge appeared to question its validity at a hearing last week, and legislative leaders have signaled potential changes to the practice. It’s unclear how Murphy’s withdrawal will affect that suit, but attorneys for Kim and the other plaintiffs suing to do away with county line ballots said in a statement that Murphy dropping out of the Senate contest does not mean they will end their legal challenge.

“The clerks’ county line primary ballots continue to violate constitutional rights of all three candidates who are suing, as well as the voters’ rights. New Jersey cannot tolerate one more unconstitutional election,” they said.

Kim told reporters Sunday that Democratic officials in counties that have awarded the county line to Murphy asked him if he would take her place on the ballot in those counties and he agreed.

Murphy’s departure leaves Kim the clear frontrunner for Menendez’s seat. The incumbent, facing federal bribery charges, is not seeking renomination but has said he may run as an independent in the general election.

Kim praised Murphy and urged unity in November.

“Tammy Murphy has been a voice for progress and public service in our state, and I respect her decision to carry on that work as first lady,” he said. “Tammy and I both agree that it is critical that we keep this seat, and the Senate, in Democratic control. Unity is vital.”

Labor leader Patricia Campos-Medina and activist Larry Hamm are also seeking the Democratic nomination. Republicans last won a U.S. Senate race in 1972.

Campos-Medina in a statement said she wishes Murphy well and understands “how hard it is to be a woman in NJ politics.”

“For 30 years, I have fought for union labor and will continue to fight for increasing the federal minimum wage and protecting workers’ rights and women’s rights to healthcare decisions,” she said. “I look forward to taking my message directly to voters who demand a voice and a choice.”

The New Jersey Globe first reported Murphy’s withdrawal.

Republished courtesy of New Jersey Monitor, which is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. New Jersey Monitor maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Terrence T. McDonald for questions: [email protected]. Follow New Jersey Monitor on Facebook and Twitter.