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With Kean’s Declaration, NJ’s 2020 Congressional Races Are Off and Running

GOP already out gunning for state’s four freshman Democrats who flipped their districts from red to blue, characterizing them as ‘socialists’

Tom Kean Jr.
Credit: twitter.com
Senate Minority leader Tom Kean Jr. (R-Union)

New Jersey’s 2020 congressional battles have officially begun, with the announcement from state Sen. Tom Kean Jr. that he’s running for the 7th District seat the Republicans lost last November in the state’s blue wave.

U.S. Rep. Tom Malinowski, who has represented the central Jersey district since January, and the other Democrats who won seats in traditionally red districts, are well aware that Republicans are targeting them and have been raising money at a fast pace. Rep. Josh Gottheimer, who won his 5th District seat despite Donald Trump’s victory, leads all New Jersey Democrats in fundraising and was the nation’s sixth-largest fundraiser among House Democrats for the first quarter of this year, according to an analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics.

The center’s analysis found that Democrats have already raised more than $56 million toward next year’s election, about 30 percent more than at this time in 2017.

GOP targets freshman Dems

The National Republican Congressional Committee announced two months ago that it is targeting all four New Jersey freshman Democrats — Malinowski, Jeff Van Drew in the 2nd, Andy Kim in the 3rd, and Mikie Sherrill in the 11th — as well as Gottheimer. That means the committee plans to put money and manpower behind those GOP races. The NRCC and related groups like the Congressional Leadership Fund, a Republican super PAC, have already been characterizing the House Democrats “socialists.”

Matthew Hale, a political science professor at Seton Hall University, said both Malinowski and Kim could face tough fights.

“Trump remains popular in the district, at least by New Jersey standards, and that could make it tougher on Kim,” Hale said. “But it also depends on who is running against him.”

Kean, an 18-year legislator and current leader GOP leader in the senate, could be an attractive candidate for the GOP to challenge Malinowski, although the Democrat won the formerly red district by a comfortable 5-point margin.

“Tom Kean is a strong candidate,” Hale said. “He is a lot like (former Rep.) Leonard Lance it terms of style, temperament and positions. But because he hasn't been in Congress I think it might be more difficult for Malinowski to tie him to Trump. The 7th is a district that likes moderate elected officials and it could go either way.”

“For the first time in a long time, we face a moment where influential politicians in Washington want to put us on a path that could upend much of what we know and cherish — including remaking the greatest economy the world has ever known,” Kean, 50, said Tuesday night in announcing his candidacy in Clark. "I'm running for Congress not just because of what I am concerned about, but whom I am concerned about. With every day that passes, I become more fiercely protective over the opportunities that my two daughters and everyone in their generation may not have, when they're older.”

Kean, the son of former Gov. Thomas H. Kean, has been a moderate in his time in the Assembly and Senate. So was former Rep. Leonard Lance, who Malinowski ousted last November, until he joined Congress and moved to the right. Lance tried to moderate his positions after the 2016 election, in which 7th district voters reelected him, but they also chose Democrat Hillary Clinton.

Time-honored talking points

In his announcement speech, Kean stuck to time-honored Republican talking points.

"I have always put people first and allowed them to make the best use of their own hard-earned paychecks,” he said. “When we relax the reins of government, our families, our local businesses and our economies thrive."

Kean is actually the second Republican to get in the 7th District race. Tom Phillips, a human resources director from Scotch Plains and supporter of Donald Trump, launched his campaign on February 1, according to his website. But while Phillips is largely unknown, Kean is currently the highest-ranking Republican in state government. He has enjoyed strong support within his legislative district, which includes parts of Union, Morris, and Somerset counties. But he lost a 2006 bid for a U.S. Senate seat to incumbent Democrat Bob Menendez by nine points.

Having just gotten into the race, Kean has not yet filed any campaign finance reports. According to documents he submitted to the Federal Election Commission, Phillips raised $5,800 in the first quarter of 2019. His website states he does not expect to spend more than $100,000 on the primary. Kean is likely to spend far more.

It could take a lot to unseat a well-financed incumbent in a district that has swung left in recent years. According to the FEC, Malinowski raised more than $562,000 through March 31 and had more than $548,000 in the bank.

But Malinowski was only the second-biggest fundraiser. Gottheimer, who won a second term last year by a 14-point margin, took in more than $830,000 and had a substantial war chest: $4.9 million in the bank.

Two of the state’s other new Democrats also raised more than a half-million dollars. FEC data shows that Kim, who ousted Republican Tom MacArthur in a squeaker, took in close to $557,000 and had $503,000 in the bank, while Sherrill raised almost $553,000 and had $779,000 on hand through March 31. Sherrill’s lopsided victory for an open seat, due to the retirement of longtime Rep. Rodney P. Frelinghuysen, was the largest swing from red to blue in the nation last year. In a statement, she said 90 percent of her money came from small donors and she is “incredibly grateful for the continued support of our grassroots community, and their belief in putting partisan politics aside to get things done for New Jersey residents.”

Van Drew, whose win for another open Republican seat in South Jersey’s 2nd District was the second-largest red-to-blue swing in the country, raised a more modest $121,000 in the first quarter and had $80,000 in the bank, according to the FEC. He acknowledged that in a recent fundraising plea to supporters, which stated, “yes, we did not have the robust fundraising performance that we were hoping for.” He could face a well-financed challenge from Republican David Richter, former CEO of a construction company who recently formed an exploratory committee for a potential run.

Among the state’s more senior Democratic representatives: Frank Pallone of the 6th District raised $466,000; Bill Pascrell of the 9th took in $238,000; and Donald Norcross of the 1st raised $166,000. Both Bonnie Watson Coleman of the 12th and Albio Sires of the 8th raised less than $100,000.

New Jersey’s lone Republican Rep. Chris Smith raised $236,000 and had $213,000 on hand.

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