Washington’s weird marriage of convenience — hoodied John Fetterman and straitlaced Andy Kim

Andy Kim can only remember talking to John Fetterman in person once. Their political styles and looks could not be more different: The Bunyanesque Pennsylvania senator who prefers hoodies and shorts is renowned for off-the-cuff comments and posting punchy political memes on X, while the three-term New Jersey Rep. Kim is a soft-spoken former diplomat who regularly shares wholesome photos of his young kids in Star Wars costumes or playing with Legos.

But despite their opposite demeanors, scarce interactions — and drastically different heights — Kim and Fetterman have become an unlikely pair tied by a mutual disgust for an indicted senator, Bob Menendez. In Kim’s heated Senate primary to replace Menendez, Fetterman became one of the most vocal outside voices on New Jersey politics. They can be considered Washington’s “Odd Couple,” and chances are they’ll be colleagues in the Senate next year.

“I don’t know why we’re odd,” Fetterman said at the Capitol. “We’re both Democrats. We both probably assume Menendez is a total sleazeball. And we’ll both be in the Senate. We seem to have a lot together in common.”

For someone who has made a career of defying norms, Fetterman has stood out as being the lone, non-New Jersey voice in the Senate routinely calling for Menendez’s resignation — rankling Kim’s home state colleagues. Fetterman aligned with the Garden State’s revolting low-level Democrats in the Senate primary by expressing distaste for New Jersey first lady Tammy Murphy, who he said relied partly on nepotism to try winning the nomination.

It all adds to the persona of an iconoclastic political figure who speaks his mind — whether anybody asked him to. Kim certainly didn’t.

“I don’t know him very well, but I certainly respect somebody who has that kind of confidence in who they are, their style, their approach. It’s not easy. Like so much of politics — there’s pressure to kind of conform on a lot of different levels. There’s pressure to not stick your neck out,” Kim added. “I hope to be able to get to know him better.”

That seems likely. Kim was considered the outsider in the race against Murphy but is now gliding towards the Democratic nomination after she dropped out in March. A Fairleigh Dickinson University poll this month showed Kim with a nine-point lead over Republican challengers after his chief rival for the Democratic nomination for Senate left the race.

Kim focused much of his campaign on making New Jersey elections fairer — specifically through tearing down its unusual ballot positioning that gives an advantage to institutional politicians. Known as “the line,” it puts candidates endorsed by the county parties in a row or column, giving enormous influence to chairs with ties to New Jersey’s political establishment.

In February, Kim filed a lawsuit against the line in federal court. And Fetterman was quick to support his efforts: “I thought Democrats were always against voter suppression?”

Kim said he had never spoken to Fetterman until Menendez was indicted. The first time they met was during a Joe Biden speech, when the significantly shorter New Jerseyan was seated behind 6’ 8” Fetterman — who was wearing a tall Steelers winter hat. “Of course they put the 5’ 6” Asian American behind John Fetterman,” he said.

The two lawmakers were first in their chambers to call on New Jersey’s senior senator to resign. Kim jumped into the race immediately after the indictment, and once the race heated up, Fetterman’s endorsement followed.

Early on, Fetterman was the lone Kim supporter from Capitol Hill — even as all of Kim’s colleagues from New Jersey took a pass, despite following Kim in urging Menendez to resign. The rest of the New Jersey delegation flocked to Murphy, who carried the heaviest backing of New Jersey’s political establishment.

“It’s a marriage of convenience,” Michael Sulieman, chair of New Jersey’s Atlantic County Democrats, said.

A lot has changed in the Senate race since Fetterman first put out his endorsement in January, when Kim looked like an underdog to Murphy. Kim’s lawsuit against the ballot positioning measure was successful for the June Democratic primary, Menendez is weighing a run as an independent and the political machine Kim and Fetterman criticized back in September appears to be crumbling in real time.

“It started with Senator Menendez and his criticism there,” Kim said. “But for a sitting senator to want to weigh in on this — I think that just kind of highlights and underscores sort of the intensity of this, this race and how much drama there is.”

New Jersey has a subtle regional rivalry with Pennsylvania, as it does with its other neighbors, New York and Delaware. But Fetterman has weighed in on the New Jersey Senate race as if it was his own state — something you don’t see from Chuck Schumer or from Biden when he was a senator. Fetterman often cites his own experience taking on a “New Jersey Republican,” a double entendre poke at Murphy, who was once registered as a Republican, and his former opponent for the Senate in 2022, Mehmet Oz, who had a New Jersey residence.

“Fetterman is making a bigger and bigger name for himself,” New Jersey GOP strategist Mike DuHaime said. “He’s quasi-local, so that endorsement certainly helped. It gave Kim some credibility.”

But other members of the New Jersey delegation weren’t as keen to Fetterman butting into the Garden State’s Senate conversation.

“I just think he needs to stay in Pennsylvania and take care of his own business,” Democratic Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman said at the Capitol.

“I wish he would spend more time worrying about winning Pennsylvania for Biden than worrying about our democratic state in New Jersey,” Rep. Mikie Sherrill said before Murphy dropped out. She previously endorsed Murphy.

No one in the New Jersey delegation endorsed Kim when he was up against Murphy. Originally, more members of the Pennsylvania delegation backed Kim than those from New Jersey did.

Fetterman and Kim said they look forward to working with each other in the upper chamber — where they may find they have much more in common.

“Maybe that’s the connection. Andy is an authentic guy: he’s a lovable guy, you kinda want to give him a hug,” Sulieman said. “Fetterman — he is very authentic. He dresses how he wants, he talks how he wants. He trolls people, he is not a polished politician.”

Sulieman added, “And over the years the authentic politicians have done well.”