Settled into a booth at the Golden Dawn Diner in a blue suit, narrow-stripe shirt and tie, Andy Kim is, as he's been for months, instantly recognizable. All those attack ads, the booming voiceovers, the negative portrayals, his face filtered on television into something vaguely sinister, fires raging in the background.
But here in this Edgewater Park diner, his 20-something press aide hunched over a laptop, Kim smiles as a woman leans over to whisper in his ear.
"I voted for you," she says.
It's the long-sought morning-after for Kim, 36, a former national security adviser in the Obama administration who declared victory Wednesday night in his long-shot quest to unseat two-term incumbent Republican Rep. Tom MacArthur, 58, a former insurance executive viewed by many as the most Trump-aligned congressman in New Jersey and an architect of the failed GOP attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
The victory has yet to be made official, as thousands of paper ballots remain to be counted in the district that runs a trifecta of Jersey corridors — I-295, Route 130, and Route 70 — but Kim is taking a spin on the classic Jersey victory lap: hosting reporters one-by-one in a diner booth Thursday.
"I'll let you in on a secret," he says, "I have not watched a single negative attack against me."
Not many others in the Philadelphia or New York media markets that cover the Third Congressional District's twin halves of Burlington and Ocean Counties could say the same. Kim was relentlessly labeled a "tax cheat," "liar," "not one of us," and, in a mailer that used a vaguely Asian font to label the Korean American graduate of Cherry Hill High School East and Rhodes scholar who played cello in a blues band at the University of Chicago, "real fishy."
Occasionally, while Kim was watching a YouTube children's show with his 3-year-old son, an attack ad against him would pop up for an instant.
"Like 'Andy Kim,' you know, " he says," lowering his voice to imitate the almost comically exaggerated sinister tone of the ads. "And my kid is like 3, and he just points to the phone, and he's like, 'Da-da.'"
The millions of dollars spent in negativity "might have backfired" against MacArthur, Kim said, especially in the final weeks of the campaign, after the Tree of Life synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh.
"People in that final stretch were just so sick and tired of the negative attacks and the divisive language and the hatred that is just in the rhetoric of our leaders," he said. "The amount of time people talked about civility in politics in the end was extraordinary."
The ads certainly raised Kim's visibility in the district, for better or worse at first, perhaps a bit awkwardly as he walked the aisles of his local supermarket in the early months of the campaign and people turned with a look of recognition. His South Korea-born parents, Jae and Chung Kim, fielded distressed calls from their friends about what they'd seen being said on TV about Andy.
"I knew the lines of attack that they were coming after me," Kim said. "I didn't need the emotional distractions. My parents certainly were upset. At some point they boycotted TV just to avoid it."
In the end, Kim says, he believes he won over the people of his home district with days and months filled with small events in living rooms, where people got to know him. He campaigned for more than a year without a primary opponent. He hired a lean staff of campaign professionals in the early years of their careers — his campaign manager, Zack Carroll, is 26 — who he says worked with a "no turf, no ego" ethos and a clear mission.
"Democracy is something that is between people," he said, "not something that exists down in D.C. My opponent was someone who wasn't out there, wasn't engaging with people. He wasn't holding town halls. Not meeting with the voters. He wasn't able to generate that kind of interest and excitement."
The night he and his wife, Kammy Lai, a tax attorney, decided to go ahead with the campaign — she was nine months pregnant with their son, August, at the time — he said she told him one thing: "The moment it becomes about your ego or your ambition, it's over."
"As parents of a 3-year-old and a 1-year-old, to put our family through this, we had to make sure it was something that was not selfish," he said. "We felt we could make an impact at this moment in time. This was a critically important race [in a district] that I happened to be from and live in."
In MacArthur, the campaign had in some ways an easy target. He was the only New Jersey congressman to vote for the tax bill. And people near and far were incensed at MacArthur for his role in the attempt to repeal Obamacare. MacArthur had mostly avoided public interactions since a disastrous town hall 17 months ago, in which citizens mostly shouted at him for five hours.
"We know a lot of people saw this race as one of the most important and competitive races in the country right in their backyard," he said. "And I know a lot of people saw this not just to change a seat, but to hold the architect of the health-care repeal bill accountable for what he's done."
Without MacArthur stepping up to fashion the "MacArthur Amendment" that critics say would have put coverage of people with pre-existing conditions at risk, but which rescued the Republican effort to repeal Obamacare, Kim says, he might not have run at all.
He was in the hospital with his wife dealing with complications with her pregnancy when MacArthur popped up on the television screen, talking about his work on the ultimately failed repeal.
"It was about the MacArthur Amendment," Kim said. "Had he not done the MacArthur Amendment, we probably would not be speaking right here. I could not believe that my own representative was the person who came up with the idea of gutting pre-existing conditions."
Kim spoke on the trail of wanting a new generation of leaders, but one overlooked dynamic in the race was literally generational: Kim is 22 years younger than MacArthur, part of a wave of younger first-time politicians breaking the mold of conventional campaign wisdom of possibility.
It's been an adventure, he said, that "pushed me to limits I never thought," tested his marriage, and inspired tens of thousands of volunteers and small donors, who invited him into their homes time and time again.
"I've been living well outside of my comfort zone this whole time," he said. "I"m really proud of how my wife and I have been able to handle this, what we've been able to do. We've been able to stay true to the principles that we went into this with. At no point did I feel like I was losing sight of what got me into this race."