The Republican candidate in New Jersey’s most competitive congressional race stumbled through an answer on whether he supports abortion rights Sunday night — he later told Gothamist he’d bar abortions after 20 weeks in most cases.

The clarification comes after Tom Kean Jr. (R-Westfield) told those gathered at a forum he supports a "woman's right to choose" — except in cases of incest or rape, or a threat to the mother’s health. At the forum, confused audience members sought clarity. At the time, Kean only doubled down on the statement.

On Monday, he said he misspoke. His efforts to clarify his position come after months of avoiding media interviews. He’s turned down several past interview requests with Gothamist, refused to meet with the Star-Ledger's editorial board and wouldn’t speak with NJ Spotlight News.

His website avoids the issue — on the portions visible to most viewers. There’s no mention of abortion on the homepage of TomKean.com, or any page linked in the navigation. But a hard-to-find page, accessible only by going directly to its URL, says Kean is a "fierce defender of the sanctity of life, fighting every step of the way to protect the unborn from egregious abortion laws proposed in New Jersey, and will continue to do so in Congress."

In January, Kean voted against a New Jersey bill known as the “Freedom of Reproductive Choice Act,” which affirmed abortion as a right in New Jersey. Every Republican in the state Legislature voted against the act or abstained. Kean says he voted no, even though he describes himself as pro-choice, because the act did not restrict late-term abortions.

Kean had appeared with his opponent — incumbent Democrat Tom Malinowski — at the forum, which was co-sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Somerset, Hunterdon, and Warren Counties and the Jewish Federation of Greater Metro-West. It was not a debate — the two candidates appeared one at a time and were asked the same questions.

Kean was asked whether he believes women should have a right to abortion, given the U.S. Supreme Court’s dismantling of Roe v. Wade.

“I support a woman's right to choose. I have a 20-year career in the state Legislature to support that,” Kean replied. “Like most New Jerseyans, I support reasonable restrictions — those include life and physical health and mental health of the mother and the baby, rape and incest, for example, with reasonable length of time to make a decision.”

A murmur went through the in-person audience. About 50 people attended the event, and another 200 were watching online. Then one man called out:

“So I've gotta follow up with that. Do you support a woman's right to choose or not?”

And Kean responded, “I just said I did.”

The confusion had stemmed from Kean's use of terms, and he looked just as surprised as the audience. The language Kean used – in one instance he referenced an exception for rape, incest, or health of the mother, and in another he cited “reasonable restrictions’” – is typically offered by people who oppose abortion rights but are willing to make exceptions for those situations. But a pro-choice position doesn’t require an exception, because to be pro-choice means support for a woman’s right to make the decision herself, without restriction.

The campaign said Monday that Kean misspoke, and Kean responded to a request to clarify his position.

“Up to about 20 weeks, a person, a woman, can … have an abortion for any reason,” Kean said. “Post that time, those exceptions would include rape, incest, life, health of the mother or the baby.”

The audience at the Jewish Community Center had been mostly made up of Malinowski supporters, and Malinowski is unequivocal in his support for a woman’s right to abortion. He’d been a supporter of the Women’s Health Protection Act, which would have prevented state restrictions on abortions before fetal viability, and allowed some late-term abortions if called for by the “good-faith medical judgment” of a health care provider. The legislation failed to pass this spring.

When it came time to take written questions from the audience at the Sunday night forum, attendees pressed Kean to clarify his position on abortion. Kean once again mangled the response, repeating what he said the first time.

“I’ve not heard him before, only his commercials. I know he’s avoided the press. I was literally stunned. Inarticulate. Evasive,” Jane Frost-Guzzo of Fanwood said. “I was struggling even to understand him.”

She was one of a large group of mostly women who have been active in the district since the 2016 election of Donald Trump, and who have supported Malinowski since then. Frost-Guzzo said the abortion answer proved to her that Kean is trying to have it both ways, to appeal to voters who both oppose and support it.

“What does Donald Trump believe? You know, they're saying what's politically beneficial for them right now. Even if all these years they might have been pro-choice,” Frost-Guzzo said.

Kean is the son of the ever-popular former governor, Tom Kean Sr., and served in the state Legislature for 21 years. He ran against Malinowski in 2020 and lost by less than a percentage point. Following the 2021 redistricting, there are now an extra 30,000 registered Republicans in the district, and Cook Political Report lists the race as leaning toward a Kean victory.

This story has been updated to reflect statements Tom Kean Jr. made to Gothamist on Monday, including that he believes in a right to choose abortion up to 20 weeks. It has additionally be updated to note that the Jewish Federation of Metro-West co-sponsored the forum where Kean and Malinowski spoke. An earlier version of this post also incorrectly described Kean with the label “(D-Ringoes),” which applies to his opponent, Tom Malinowski.