At a recent debate for New Jersey’s most competitive congressional race, a throng of reporters waited at the front door of a Holiday Inn for the Republican challenger to arrive.
Tom Kean Jr. is one of the most well-known Republicans in the state, a former state senator, and the son of a former governor. He’s now running for the 7th Congressional District for the fourth time, a rematch of the 2020 race he narrowly lost to incumbent Democrat Tom Malinowski. He eluded the reporters by entering through the back.
Reporters wouldn’t get another chance like that. There’s been another recent debate, held online, but the one held last Thursday in the township of Clark would be the only face-to-face debate of the campaign season. And avoiding reporters has been a pattern — the Kean campaign has turned down almost every interview request from media outlets, including multiple from Gothamist. It has also barred reporters from entering his campaign events.
“Clearly, the Kean campaign believes that it's a winning strategy,” said Micah Rasmussen, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University. “They want a very tightly controlled message as far as what gets out there.”
Malinowski has taken the opposite route, eagerly talking to anyone who’ll listen, and his campaign has made a point of reminding voters that Kean hasn't.
“We would love a strategy where we introduce Kean to every single voter in the district or have more public forums with him, because when you do, there's a stark difference between the two of them when they address voters,” said Naree Ketudat, a spokeswoman for the Malinowski campaign.
Those differences were on display in the debate, which focused on inflation and the economy. Malinowski says government can solve problems, and that was what voters sent him to Congress in 2018 to do. He voted to protect the Affordable Care Act; fund the construction of roads, tunnels and bridges; and fund projects that fight climate change.
While Malinowski argues that the bills he helped pass saved the economy and jobs during the pandemic, Kean takes the opposite tack. The Republican challenger says increased federal spending is what’s causing inflation.
“He followed Nancy Pelosi's lead 100% of the time, and as a result, we've got this out-of-control inflation,” Kean said at the debate. “I'm running for Congress so I can break the back of inflation responsibly, cut the spending coming out of Washington, D.C.”
But it’s not just policy where these two candidates differ. Malinowski is a policy wonk. His answers were expansive and detailed. Even when the debate topic turned to immigration, he stuck to the legislative issues, rather than telling his own dramatic story about how he fled communist Poland with his mother when he was 6 years old.
Kean stuck to broad statements, most of which spoke to the anger and distrust that many voters feel toward their government.
“My opponent, for 30 years in Washington, D.C., has supported exporting manufacturing jobs to China,” the Republican said at the debate.
Malinowski responded that he has only been in Congress for four years. He lived in Washington and worked for Human Rights Watch for most of his career.
Both candidates do have one campaign strategy in common. Without a presidential race at the top of the ticket, both camps are working to get their sides energized. For Malinowski, that means repeating one central message: If voters elect Kean, they could very well give control of the House of Representatives to the Republican Party, and that means handing over the keys to the far right.
“The ascendant leaders of his party in Washington have put forward absolutely no plan to deal with this economic situation. But they do have a very specific plan for banning abortion,” Malinowski said at the debate. “That's the difference. It's moderation versus MAGA. It's bridge builders versus bomb throwers. It’s infrastructure bills or insurrection.”
In the separate online debate on Sunday night, Kean was asked directly for his personal opinion of former President Donald Trump. He didn’t say, and was asked again for a yes-or-no answer to whether he agrees with his father that Trump is not fit to serve as president.
“I think that people in this district are focused on the economy and inflation,” Kean replied. “It's the highest rate it's been in 40 years, and right now we've got to get through this year's election cycle.”
To do that, Kean appears to be employing three key strategies: talk almost exclusively about inflation; bridge the gap between passionate Trump supporters and the many moderates who still vote Republican despite their opposition to the former president; and tie Malinowski to Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the House.
In the online debate, he mentioned Pelosi 11 times in one hour. After the 10th time, the usually restrained Malinowski took a swipe.
“Let me just say this, on Jan. 6, Nancy Pelosi defended the Capitol and the Constitution,” Malinowski said to Kean. “You are afraid of the people who tried to shred the Capitol and our Constitution. So I would say Nancy Pelosi has a lot more balls than Tom Kean, Jr.”