A Republican with a familiar name is challenging a freshman Democratic Congressman in one of New Jersey’s more competitive races -- and testing whether the party can win back suburban districts where polling indicates Trump and the GOP are hemorrhaging support.
Republican State Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr. is running against incumbent Congressman Tom Malinowski in the northern Jersey district that stretches from Union County’s wealthy New York City suburbs to Somerset and Hunterdon counties. It also includes the president’s Bedminster golf course.
But in an election that is largely a referendum on Trump, Kean Jr. is trying to walk a tightrope: Supporting the president while pitching himself as a centrist who can seek “common ground” in Washington. And he’s doing so in a district where backlash to Trump turned the Republican stronghold blue in 2018, unseating a longtime GOP Congressman.
“He's running against a tide here where he doesn't have the ability to overcome what these voters in this district see as a party that has become the arm of Donald Trump,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute.
Kean Jr. is the son of former Governor Tom Kean Sr., who remains New Jersey’s most popular former governor. His campaign is built around nostalgia for the type of fiscally conservative, socially moderate (and occasionally liberal) Northeastern Republican that his father embodied.
“It means putting people before politics, serving with honesty and integrity,” Kean Jr. said at his campaign kickoff event in April right after he was introduced by his father.
But that brand of moderate Republicanism is at odds with the kind of mudslinging and conspiracy-peddling espoused by Trump and the national GOP.
Kean Jr. hasn’t publicly reconciled these two realities, and his campaign did not respond to requests for an interview or a list of questions.
Kean Jr. attended a Trump rally in Wildwood earlier this year that the president held to boost Democrat-turned-Republican Congressman Jeff Van Drew’s (R-Dist. 2) campaign. But during a debate hosted by the New Jersey Globe last month, Kean barely mentioned Trump. When pushed by Malinowski, he chided the president for downplaying the coronavirus when he knew about the transmissibility and severity of the disease back in February.
“The president should have told people a lot earlier and it’s wrong that they didn’t,” Kean said, before pivoting to criticizing New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy’s response to the pandemic in nursing homes.
Listen to reporter Karen Yi's radio story for WNYC:
New Jersey's 7th district is one of the most educated districts in the country, and has long been home to moderate Republican leaders like former Governor Christie Todd Whitman, a longtime Trump critic who's endorsed Joe Biden and Assembly Minority Leader John Bramnick, a likely gubernatorial candidate next year who preaches a politics built around civility and bipartisanship who’s repeatedly criticized the president.
The swing district voted for Obama in 2008, Romney in 2012 and Clinton in 2016 by a very slim margin. In 2018, voters ousted longtime GOP Congressman Leonard Lance. During the Obama Administration, Lance repeatedly took part in largely symbolic votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Once Trump moved into the Oval Office, the threat of ACA repeal became real. That didn’t play well with his constituents, who packed his town halls in record numbers, denouncing Republicans’ increasingly far-right tilt and demanding Lance stand up to Trump. In 2017, Lance was ultimately one of a handful in his party to vote against the GOP’s repeal-and-replace measure, but it wasn't enough to save his career in a swing district that had become virulently anti-Trump.
“Lance tried to wrap himself up in this, the taint of Trump,” said Bart Cocchiola, 52, a lifelong Republican in Hunterdon County supporting Malinowski. “And he lost… and now Tom Kean is not doing anything different.”
Cocchiola, an airline pilot who runs the Facebook group New Jersey Independent Republicans, said the GOP ran moderates off the cliff and lost the values that compelled him to join the party at 17.
“They have nothing to run on. Their political structure, it demands such adherence to their crazy story that if you wanted to be reasonable, you can't,” he said. He said Kean hasn’t separated himself from the national party and that shows “he doesn't have the principles that we would want for him to espouse being from New Jersey.”
Representative Malinowski said voters are looking for someone who can be a check on the president (should he be re-elected) and who can also represent the district’s values: moderation and pragmatism. He said Kean’s support of the president runs counter to those principles.
“I don't see how you can be for common ground and decency while believing that a guy whose words every single day sow division and encourage extremism and even violence in our country should be our leader for another four years,” Malinowski told Gothamist/WNYC.
“It's a choice that puts him at odds with the values and concerns of a majority of the people in my district.”
Republican strategist Mike Duhaime, who is friends with Kean Jr., said there’s no question Trump has an outsized influence in local races but he doesn’t think all moderate GOP and independent voters’ will take out their frustrations with Trump on races down the ballot.
“I certainly don't blame Democrats for trying to tie every Republican, fair or not, to Donald Trump. The question is whether or not voters will believe it. And I think in this district, Tom has enough people who are going to be ticket-splitters that it really gives him a chance,” Duhaime said.
One of those ticket-splitters is Adam, a 57-year-old Westfield resident who didn’t want to give his last name. He said he has socially progressive values and doesn’t support Trump, but in the Congressional race, he voted for Kean.
“I didn't make a judgment on the person as much as I did the party.” he said.
Duhaime said Kean Jr. has tried to keep the race focused on local issues like health care and the environment.
“There are things he agrees with the president on and things he disagrees with the president on and has tried to very much be himself throughout his time here,” Duhaime said. “The question is how much can Tom [Kean] overcome if Trump loses the district?”
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