Tom Kean Jr. speaking to supporters in Basking Ridge with his wife, Rhonda, and daughters Elizabeth and Meredith on Nov. 8, 2022. (Hal Brown for New Jersey Monitor)
In New Jersey’s most closely watched congressional race, U.S. Rep. Tom Malinowski resisted conceding Tuesday night to his Republican challenger Tom Kean Jr. in the 7th district, even though Kean was clearly ahead at midnight and gave what many regarded as a victory speech.
Kean strode into a ballroom at the Olde Mill Inn in Basking Ridge at 11:35 p.m. as Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down” blared from the speakers and the crowd cheered.
“We’re on a very good trajectory,” Kean said in a 3-minute speech. “I believe we’re going to win this thing tonight.”
Meanwhile, in Garwood, Malinowski walked out just before midnight to Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” to energize supporters who were watching Kean’s lead grow. In his speech, Malinowski remained optimistic, urging people to be patient until all the votes are counted even if they’re “going home tonight uncertain.”
“This is an unsettled election, not just here in the 7th District but all around,” he said. “Maybe that’s a good thing because all the commentators and pundits were expecting that at this point, we’d be talking about a red wave, and, really, we have no clue what’s happening.”
Malinowski was the most endangered House incumbent statewide, after redistricting last year gave Republicans a 3% edge over Democrats in the district. Malinowski attributed his opponent’s lead to the district’s new boundaries, stressing that if they were running in the district before it was redrawn, “there is no question that we would be winning, hands down.”
As of 1:30 a.m., Kean leads Malinowski by more than 13,500 votes.
Malinowski argued that despite the close race with most of the votes counted, vote-by-mail ballots still coming in would likely lean Democrat, and he noted some ballots were still being counted in Somerset County.
“We may have lost, but we may have also won, and I just think it’s premature to call the race until you have more in,” he told reporters.
This was the second matchup for Malinowski and Kean, a former state senator who came within about 5,300 votes of unseating Malinowski in 2020. This was Kean’s fourth try for a congressional seat.
Kean thanked Malinowski, a veteran of the Clinton and Obama administrations who has held the seat since 2019, for “his years of public service and a very spirited campaign.”
“Throughout this nation, we have been given an opportunity to change the course of history,” Kean told a celebratory crowd. “My solemn pledge to you will always be to serve with dignity, to listen, to learn, and to earn this responsibility that you (trusted) me with to steer this nation towards greater prosperity, greater security, and greater affordability.”
Many of the state’s GOP bigwigs were on hand to applaud, from Kean’s father, former Gov. Tom Kean Sr., and last year’s GOP gubernatorial candidate, Jack Ciattarelli, to Senate Minority Leader Steve Oroho and Assembly Minority Leader John DiMaio.
Roger Bodman of Hopewell surveyed the crowd with growing excitement. He was Kean Sr.’s campaign manager in 1981, and he remembers clearly how close that race was — Kean Sr. squeaked out a win by 1,797 votes, out of about 2.5 million cast.
“The closest gubernatorial election in state history — and Gov. Kean is always kind to remind me that four years later, when he ran for reelection with someone else as his campaign manager, he won by 800,000 votes, the biggest landslide the state’s history,” Bodman said with a laugh.
Bodman’s mostly retired now, but for Kean Jr., he happily got to work, helping the campaign fundraise and offering occasional campaign advice, he said.
“I so admire the Kean family — their tradition of public service goes back decades,” said Bodman, who served in Kean Sr.’s administration as labor commissioner and transportation commissioner. “They care about their country, about their state, about the district and the people they represent. So in my book, this district can’t do better than Tom Kane Jr.”
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