Former state Sen. Tom Kean Jr., left, and Rep. Tom Malinowski are competing in what is expected to be the closest House race in New Jersey this year. (Courtesy of Kean and Malinowski campaigns)
As Republicans campaign to win back control of Congress after next month’s midterm elections, the fight over New Jersey’s 7th District has become one of the most closely watched contests in the nation.
The race pits Democratic incumbent Rep. Tom Malinowski against Republican Tom Kean Jr. for the second time in two years. In 2020, Kean, a former state senator who has made three previous unsuccessful runs for Congress, came within about 5,300 votes of unseating Malinowski, a veteran of the Clinton and Obama administrations who voters first elected to the seat in 2018.
Last year’s redistricting gave Republicans a 3% edge over Democrats in the district, which covers Warren, Hunterdon, and parts of Morris, Somerset, Sussex, and Union counties. That’s largely why election prognosticators from FiveThirtyEight to the Cook Political Report favor Kean to win.
“This should be Tom Kean Jr.’s race to lose,” said Dan Cassino, executive director of the Fairleigh Dickinson Poll and a politics and government professor at Fairleigh Dickinson University. “If the same people who voted in 2020 vote now, or the same people who voted in 2018 for that matter, then Tom Kean Jr. wins.”
But red and blue waves can be unpredictable, and there’s still time for all sorts of unseen things to fire up voters on either side, said Micah Rasmussen, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University.
“I would not say that Malinowski is down and out by any means,” Rasmussen said. “At this point, we are very much down to which voters show up. That’s really the question.”
Malinowski, 57, of Ringoes, was born in Poland and immigrated to America at age 6 with his mother.
He worked for two presidential administrations before he joined Congress — as a senior director on President Clinton’s National Security Council and as President Obama’s assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor.
In between, he was chief advocate at Human Rights Watch, where he campaigned to end the use of torture by the Bush administration.
In Congress, he serves on the Foreign Affairs, Homeland Security, and Transportation and Infrastructure committees, as well as various subcommittees. He has sponsored more than 230 bills since taking office in January 2019, although just one — to reauthorize and expand the National Estuary Program — became law.
Kean, 54, of Westfield, is a New Jersey native who comes from a political family whose public service dates back to colonial times. His father, Tom Kean Sr., served two terms as governor from 1982 to 1990, and his late grandfather, Robert Kean, served in Congress from 1939 to 1958.
He joined the Legislature in April 2001, when he was appointed to the Assembly to fill a vacant seat, and served there until March 2003, when he was appointed to the state Senate.
He became the Senate’s Republican leader in 2008 and served on its higher education, commerce, and legislative oversight committees. Since 2001, he introduced 754 bills as first prime sponsor, 29 of which became law, including measures to establish a grant program for community gardens and criminalize animal fights in car trunks.
Early in his career, he worked as an aide to the late GOP Congressman Bob Franks and as a special assistant at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency during the George H.W. Bush administration.
Both candidates have relentlessly characterized each other as representative of the worst of their party, with Malinowski hammering Kean as a MAGA loyalist and Kean maligning Malinowski as a Nancy Pelosi groupie.
This is the kind of campaigning that often hits home with voters, said Ashley Koning, director of the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling at Rutgers University.
“We’ve learned from election cycles past and from the political science that negativity works, whether we’re talking about campaign ads or tying opponents to the perceived villain on the other side,” Koning said. “It works as a shortcut for voters to understand their positions.”
Kean didn’t respond to the New Jersey Monitor’s request for an interview.
Malinowski said what Democrats in Congress have done — and plan to do — has helped him make this a more competitive race, he told the New Jersey Monitor.
“The conventional wisdom was that I was doomed. Everyone counted me out eight months ago, and now we’ve clawed back to a tie,” Malinowski said. “Now it’s the most closely watched race in this region. And that’s a testament to the campaign that we’ve been running and the trust that I built with voters in the district.”
In that uphill battle, Malinowski has raised and spent twice as much as Kean so far, campaign finance filings show.
That isn’t unusual, because incumbents typically outspend challengers. But it’s also not necessarily impactful, given the district lies in one of the most expensive media markets in the country, Cassino said.
Kean’s campaign has been helped by outside spending by GOP groups. The National Republican Congressional Committee and the Congressional Leadership Fund, a Republican super PAC, have funded ads attacking Malinowski for his stock trades, which the House Ethics Committee has been scrutinizing for over a year. The congressman was late to report hundreds of securities transactions from January 2019 to March 2021.
“Republicans smell blood in the water,” Cassino said. “They really want to take the seat.”
Malinowski said he has corrected reporting deficiencies and put his retirement savings in a blind trust.
“There was no allegation of insider trading or anything like that in that report. In fact, they confirmed that I’d had no involvement or even prior knowledge of any of the trades my broker was making,” Malinowski said.
The probe already was slow-going because the committee was examining dozens of lawmakers’ stock trades, but then the committee’s work stalled after its ranking member, Rep. Jackie Walorski (R-Indiana), died in a car crash in August, Malinowski said.
Kean and his GOP colleagues are “trying to imply there’s some kind of ongoing investigation, or unethical behavior, and that’s not the case,” Malinowski said.
“The question becomes: Is this a referendum on Donald Trump or is this referendum on Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi?”
– Dan Cassino, executive director of the Fairleigh Dickinson Poll
As the prospect of the GOP retaking control of the House has become more likely, Malinowski has zeroed in on abortion rights — under attack nationally since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June — while Kean has focused on persistent inflation and affordability issues.
“They’re trying to play both sides of that district,” Cassino said. “The question becomes: Is this a referendum on Donald Trump or is this referendum on Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi?”
That question is one candidates are trotting out all over the country, Koning said.
“All politics is national right now,” she said.
Still, the district has a few unique issues, such as immigration and the long-fought effort to lift a federal $10,000 cap on state and local tax deductions, Cassino said.
About 155,000 of the district’s 761,000 residents are foreign-born, census data shows. So “international stuff does matter quite a bit there,” Cassino said. Malinowski, consequently, has pushed foreign policy issues more than politicians in other districts, he added.
And on taxes, Malinowski and New Jersey’s other House Democrats had vowed they wouldn’t support President Biden’s spending plan unless the state and local tax deduction, capped in 2017, was restored. But then they agreed to the Inflation Reduction Act this summer without the SALT repeal.
The 7th is one of the state’s wealthier districts, with a median household income of $125,429, according to census figures, so Malinowski’s decision to support the spending plan without repealing the SALT cap hurt him, Cassino said.
“There’s not many places in the country where you have houses with property taxes that cost more than $10,000, but in the 7th, in the 11th, you’re there. So that’s a huge issue, that’s a bread-and-butter issue for people in that district,” Cassino said. “That’s probably the most substantive hit he’s taken — that he caved and did not get his constituents what he promised he would get them.”
Malinowski said voters know Republicans created the cap — and want to make it permanent. It’s now set to expire after 2025.
“Blaming me and the Democrats for not getting it done is like a bank robber blaming the police for not catching him yet,” he said. “Why on earth would we elect a Republican majority when they have told us that they are going to screw New Jersey? With a Democratic Congress, we’re going to continue to try to restore deductibility before 2026.”
Malinowski finds humor in being blamed, like Kean pinning inflation on Malinowski and his fellow Democrats.
“Well, it’s true. It’s entirely my fault. It’s not Democrats, it’s just me. I’ve been holding this secret inside for months and months, and you’re the first person I’m actually confessing to,” he joked. “I also caused inflation in Sweden and France, Britain and Germany and Italy and Poland. And Turkey.”
He doesn’t mean to sound dismissive, he said.
“I always do acknowledge I am part of the majority party, and we have a responsibility to fix the problem,” he said. “But we are trying to do something about it, by passing legislation to bring manufacturing — things like microchips — back to the United States, by unclogging the ports, by passing bills to lower the price of health care and prescription drugs.”
Kean, he added, hasn’t specified what he would do to cut inflation, other than generally calling for a reduction in spending.
A turnout game
More than a third of the district’s voters are unaffiliated, which political observers agree could help either candidate.
“It’s all a game of turnout, in the end,” Koning said. “As many voters say a particular issue is important to them, it depends on who these candidates get to turn out for them — and how many voters in the middle they can persuade.”
Malinowski said he’s had “a huge number” of volunteers out knocking on doors to drum up support, something his campaign couldn’t do in 2020 because of pandemic precautions. He agreed the contest will be a “turnout race.”
“Voters understand what’s on the ballot — that it’s not a choice between the economy and their individual rights and freedoms. Both of these things are on the ballot, and the Republicans have no plan for addressing inflation but they do have a plan for taking away your rights and freedoms,” he said. “So I don’t think it could be any more clear.”
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