Tensions rise in 7th District after death threats to Malinowski, QAnon slur, GOP ad

Democratic incumbent accuses challenger Tom Kean and Republican committee of spreading false allegations
Credit: tomkean.com, malinowskifornj.com
Candidates in the 7th Congressional District contest: Left, Republican challenger Tom Kean Jr. and Democratic incumbent Rep. Tom Malinowski

Death threats to Democratic Congressman Tom Malinowski following false allegations that he argued in defense of sex offenders more than a decade ago have raised the temperature of an already-competitive race for New Jersey’s 7th Congressional District.

Malinowksi, who is running for reelection after winning the seat in 2018, received six of the threats to his Washington office last week after the airing of a TV advertisement by the Republican National Campaign Committee; the ad claims that, in his work with the nonprofit Human Rights Watch in the mid-2000s, Malinowski opposed a provision in a crime bill that would have broadened registration requirements for sex offenders. The ad says: “Tom Malinowski tried to make it easier for predators to hide in the shadows.”

The allegations have been repeated by his opponent Republican Tom Kean, a longtime state lawmaker now serving as the GOP leader in the state Senate who is making his second run for federal office in a district that Malinowksi flipped to the Democrats two years ago after 37 years of continuous representation by Republicans.

The allegations may be overshadowed by voter sentiment on President Donald Trump, whose polarizing personality is expected to play an outsize role in the outcome of the 7th District race.

“Donald Trump is the dominant issue,” said Ben Dworkin, a professor of politics at Rowan University. “He sucks all the oxygen out of the room. Then health care, transportation infrastructure, taxes. But the issue that is front and center is the president and that overshadows everything else.”

In 2018, Republican incumbent Leonard Lance tried to distance himself from Trump because of the president’s unpopularity in the district, Dworkin said, but it didn’t work, and Lance lost to Malinowski.

“When the voters who don’t like the president say they don’t like what they’ve seen, there is an additional desire to not enable the president by not electing more Republicans,” Dworkin said. “In a place where the president is not popular, like parts of New Jersey, it becomes very tough to run as a Republican.”

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Where Kean appears to diverge from Trump

Kean, the son of former Gov. Thomas Kean, appeared to diverge from Trump on the president’s frequent attacks on the integrity of mail-in voting. Asked whether the president is correct when he says voting by mail is an unsafe way for voters to cast their ballots, Kean’s spokesman Harrison Neely said there are “multiple safe and secure ways” for people to vote, including using the postal system, using a drop box, or bringing the ballot to a polling place on Election Day.

Asked whether Kean believes the Affordable Care Act should be abolished or amended, Neely said Kean believes any solution must protect preexisting conditions, allow young people to stay on their parents’ insurance until they are 26, and create more transparency in the drug-pricing system.

Kean, through his spokesman, declined requests for an interview.

As Senate minority leader, Kean has helped to find bipartisan solutions to lowering the cost of prescription drugs, improving health care for pregnant women, and getting better insurance coverage for mental health care and addiction services, Neely said.

The district, which Malinowski won by five percentage points in 2018, is currently rated as “lean Democratic” in the Nov. 3 election by the Cook Political Report and two other forecasters. It covers all of Hunterdon County and parts of five neighboring counties.

The district is one of New Jersey’s most competitive, said Dworkin. “Republicans believe it’s a district they can win and should win, Democrats have an incumbent and have proved that they can win, and when both sides think they can win, that’s a competitive district,” he said.

For his part, Malinowski said the main achievements of his first term have been the retention of federal funding for the Gateway Program to expand and renovate the Northeast Corridor rail line to New York; restoring money for a Department of Homeland Security program to fight domestic terrorism, and his leadership of legislation to restore the deduction in state and local taxes.

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Malinowski: Dems would reform SALT

The “SALT” tax measure has not been passed by the Republican-controlled Senate but shows that if Democrats enact tax reform under a new president next year, they will insist it includes the deduction, Malinowski said.

He said he had also delivered some $2 billion in federal funding for COVID-19 relief and helped 1,800 people receive unemployment benefits after the state system broke down in the early stages of the pandemic.

If he’s reelected, Malinowski said a top priority will be the protection of some form of federal health insurance if the U.S. Supreme Court strikes down the Affordable Care Act under a conservative majority that would be strengthened by Amy Coney Barrett, Trump’s nominee to replace the late Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

“If the Supreme Court strikes it down, we are going to have to find a way to work around the court’s reasoning to restore the central elements of the law,” he said.

The threats against Malinowksi came from QAnon, a group that anonymously promotes a conspiracy theory that a global ring of pedophiles is plotting against Trump while making children available for sex.

In August, Malinowksi co-sponsored a bipartisan House resolution condemning QAnon and its conspiracy theories, urging Americans to seek information from authoritative sources, and calling on the FBI — which has said that fringe conspiracy theories increase the likelihood of violent attacks on their critics — to step up its monitoring of QAnon and similar groups. On Friday, the House overwhelmingly approved the resolution by 371 votes to 18.

Malinowski said he was the target last Tuesday of a message-board post by “Q” — the titular head of the conspiracy group — that included screen shots of his resolution and of a National Republican Congressional Committee press release that accused him of lobbying for sex offenders.

Accuses Kean of spreading QAnon slur

“What Q was saying was that the person who is leading the charge against it in Congress is doing the very thing that our conspiracy theory is pointing to: powerful people supporting sex trafficking or pedophilia,” Malinowski said in an interview with NJ Spotlight News.

“So the NRCC press release fit perfectly with the QAnon conspiracy theory and was seized upon by the Q person itself and Q followers who then targeted me with a lot of social media abuse and several death threats,” he said.

Asked whether Kean has been spreading the QAnon theory about him, Malinowski replied: “He has, it’s not debatable. Even yesterday, his campaign manager retweeted one of the NRCC attacks,” he said on Friday.

“I am laying the responsibility at his feet and the NRCC’s,” Malinowski said. “When the leader of a terrorist organization posts your press releases, I think you need to take responsibility. If Al-Qaeda was posting NRCC press releases, I would hope that they would express some shame.”

Neely, Kean’s spokesman, said the state senator has denounced QAnon and will continue to speak out against violent or verbal threats against any individual. But he rejected Malinowski’s statement that Kean is perpetuating the group’s claims.

“No one should be receiving death threats, but Congressman Malinowski is wrong to attempt to lay the blame at the feet of Senator Kean,” Neely wrote in a statement. “The facts are that Congressman Malinowski boasts about Human Rights Watch having won a Nobel Prize before he worked there, but he is refusing to take accountability for the organization’s efforts while he was the Washington Director. Human Rights Watch broadly opposed a national sex offender registry and Malinowski signed the lobbying disclosure that said he worked on the issue.”

In the interview, Malinowski said the allegation that he had lobbied against the extension of reporting requirements for sex offenders while working at Human Rights Watch was false, an assertion that has been verified by fact-checkers at the Washington Post and The New York Times.

The basis for the “lie,” he said, was that Human Rights Watch and other civil liberties groups were concerned about a proposal to put low-level juvenile offenders on a sex-offenders registry for life. The group was not lobbying to scrap the registry altogether, and Malinowski said he was not personally involved in that work.

“I didn’t work on the issue at all when I was at the organization, so it’s doubly false,” he said.