A wide conservative field in GOP fight to oust Malinowski from Congress

By: - May 16, 2022 7:19 am

Rep. Tom Malinowski, whose re-election fight is the most closely watched in New Jersey, will face one of seven Republicans vying for the chance to unseat him in November. (Courtesy of New Jersey Governor's Office)

Two years after Democratic Rep. Tom Malinowski’s congressional career nearly ended following a one-point victory over then-state Sen. Tom Kean in what was one of the nation’s tightest 2020 contests, the 7th Congressional District is brimming with Republican House hopefuls.

Seven would-be GOP congressmen have launched bids in what is expected to be the state’s most hotly watched congressional race. At their forefront is Kean, who gave up state office to focus on his repeat challenge against the two-term Democrat.

Kean, whose campaign declined repeated requests for an interview, has again emerged as the primary frontrunner after securing official party support in every county in the district save Sussex, where the county Republican organization does not make primary endorsements.

The closeness of the district’s 2020 race and changes made to its boundaries in last year’s reapportionment have cemented the 7th District as a top target for Republicans nationally as they seek to retake the House and Senate from Democrats after November’s midterm elections.

Malinowski’s district, which the GOP held for nearly 40 years before Malinowski’s 2018 victory over Rep. Leonard Lance, grew significantly more Republican with the addition of the entirety of Warren County and more heavily Republican towns in Sussex County when district lines were redrawn in December.

The incumbent has also had to tangle with the fallout from a series of stock trades he failed to timely disclose during the early months of the pandemic.

Who’s running in the GOP primary?

Here’s who is on the June 7 Republican primary ballot in the 7th District:

  • Tom Kean
  • Assemblyman Erik Peterson
  • Former gubernatorial candidate Phil Rizzo
  • Former investment banker John Isemann
  • Fredon Mayor John Flora
  • Kevin Dorlan
  • Sterling Schwab

Despite the challenges Malinowski faces, fundraising has been slow for the Republican candidates, with Kean and his $1.5 million war chest the only exception. Rizzo reported having $157,612 on hand at the end of March to Isemann’s $33,329 and Peterson’s $23,113. Dorlan, the lone remaining candidate who reported campaign finance figures to the Federal Election Commission, had just $5,493 banked.

Malinowski, who faces a primary challenge from pro-Trump Democrat Roger Bacon, had more than $3.4 million in reserves at the end of the most recent reporting period.

John Isemann said New Jersey falls “deeper and deeper into the tank” as the same Republicans continue to lose to Democrats. (Courtesy of Isemann campaign)

Isemann, a 27-year-old first-time candidate who has emerged as one of Kean’s more serious challengers after forcing the former minority leader into a runoff for the support of the Morris County GOP, has tried to carve himself a niche in between the frontrunner and a group of lesser-known conservative candidates.

He said his campaign was aiming to secure votes from younger voters who rarely vote in midterm primaries but are seeing their influence over elections grow amid generational demographic shifts.

“We just continue to put up the same Republicans and lose to the same Democrats, and those margins get wider and wider, and our state falls deeper and deeper into the tank,” Isemann said.

Assemblyman Erik Peterson (R-Hunterdon), already one of New Jersey’s most conservative elected officials, is looking to secure his lane by leaning hard on conservative credentials — including those won during protests against Statehouse vaccine rules last year — and questioning those of his opponents.

Assemblyman Erik Peterson made headlines last year when he and a group of Republicans challenged the Statehouse vaccine police. (Dana DiFilippo | New Jersey Monitor)

“There’s a huge difference here. Those guys are just rhetoric. I actually have a record,” Peterson said. “I’m the only proven conservative in the race. I’m the only conservative who’s been tried, tested, and proven to be a conservative.”

Former gubernatorial candidate Phil Rizzo, Fredon Mayor John Flora, and two political newcomers — Kevin Dorlan and Sterling Schwab, who did not return a request for comment — also occupy the conservative space.

The concentration of conservatives has some concerned about a vote split like the one seen between Rizzo and perennial candidate Hirsh Singh during last year’s Republican primary for governor, when the two each won about a quarter of the vote, leaving the remainder for centrist former Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli. Ciattarelli then lost to Gov. Phil Murphy.

A vote split is fine for Flora, who alleges Rizzo pandered to Democrats over a January 2021 call to pass Medicare for all.

“I would rather run and split the vote than allow someone like that to have a path and continue the way New Jersey politics and politics in this country have been working,” said Flora.

Rizzo said he is less concerned about splitting the vote and has largely campaigned as though he were in a race between two candidates instead of one between seven. His campaign had “proven through fundraising and grassroots energy there is no other viable opposition to Tom Kean,” he said.

This primary “is a two-man race,” said Rizzo, who has challenged Kean to a debate and offered to foot the costs.

Rizzo’s animus toward Kean and his selection as the party favorite is shared by some others in the race.

“People ask me every day why I want to do this, and I’ll be honest with you: I don’t want to do this. No one wants to be the voice against the establishment, but somebody has to be,” said Dorlan, adding he feels “career politicians are out of touch with the people.”

Former state Sen. Tom Kean has spent the primary focused on incumbent Rep. Tom Malinowski and issues that could motivate Republican voters in November, not his primary opponents.

Kean’s online presence, on the other hand, seldom mentions his primary opponents and is instead dedicated to attacks against the Democratic incumbent and rallying cries around conservative issues.

Most of Kean’s active Facebook ads push supporters to sign a petition against state sex education guidelines that have become a focal point for New Jersey Republicans. Two others attack House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and progressive Democrats in the chamber. None mention his primary opponents.

But there’s still more infighting than agreement among the Republican candidates, and few have hesitated to lob bombs at their opponents, whose support and voters they may need come November.

“On the Republican side, we say we’re carving out a lane between Kean and crazy,” Isemann said. “On one end you have centuries of political dynasty, and on the other you have political opportunists like Phil Rizzo.”

GET THE MORNING HEADLINES DELIVERED TO YOUR INBOX

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Nikita Biryukov
Nikita Biryukov

Nikita Biryukov most recently covered state government and politics for the New Jersey Globe. His tenure there included revelatory stories on marijuana legalization, voting reform and Rep. Jeff Van Drew's decamp to the Republican Party. Earlier, he worked as a freelancer for The Home News Tribune and The Press of Atlantic City.

MORE FROM AUTHOR