There’s an expectation of accountability for the actions of others in the closely-watched race for Congress in New Jersey’s 7th district, where the tussle between Toms has often moved elsewhere on the ticket or jumped off the ballot entirely.
Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-Ringoes) wants Republican challenger Tom Kean, Jr. to answer for President Donald Trump and for comments denying systemic racism made last week by State Sen. Michael Doherty (R-Oxford).
In turn, Kean has sought to link Malinowski to lobbying efforts against a 2006 bill establishing a national sex offender registry and to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Micah Rasmussen, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University, said such proxy attacks may not prove as effective as ones targeting the candidates directly.
“I always think that’s a little weaker because you’re not making the direct indictment on the candidate himself,” he said. “You’re making an indictment on their relationship with an organization or with the president or with the top of the ticket.”
That wouldn’t be the case for Trump, whose presence at the top of the ticket is likely to pervade every election held on Nov. 3, but the tie between Kean and Doherty could prove ineffectual.
During a speech at a 9/11 ceremony last week that Kean attended, Doherty claimed systemic racism did not exist, charged Black Lives Matter was a Marxist organization and contended the Defund the Police movement was meant to destabilize the nation.
Malinowski on Sunday asked Kean, the Senate minority leader, why he did not interrupt or repudiate the Warren County Republican at the time.
“You were there,” Malinowski said. “You missed your moment.”
Kean said he believed systemic racism existed during a debate Sunday and has attended Black Lives Matter rallies, and though Kean leads Doherty’s caucus, there’s little else binding him to the latter’s statements.
“I realize we’re in a time where it’s considered fair game to ask people to repudiate anything that anybody says that there might be any tangential involvement in, but there’s no suggestion that Tom Kean holds Mike Doherty’s views,” Rasmussen said. “Mike Doherty has always been on his own in Trenton. He’s known as a loner with his positions. I don’t think he would argue otherwise. He never claims to speak for his caucus.”
It’s not clear whether Malinowski will put money behind an effort to link Kean with Doherty — the Warren County senator wins huge pluralities in the most Republican parts of Kean’s district — but the minority leader’s party has already put money behind attacking Malinowski.
The National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) today launched a $250,000 cable television ad buy advancing the allegation that the freshman congressman lobbied on behalf of sex offenders.
Malinowski was Washington director for Human Rights Watch in 2006, and his name appears on a lobbying disclosure related to the bill, though he and Jennifer Daskal, then advocacy director for the group’s U.S. Program, have said the congressman was not involved.
“I did not play any such role,” Malinowski said during a New Jersey Globe debate Sunday. “We submitted lobbying reports that listed everybody in the organization who lobbied on any issue.”
The attack has turned into Republicans’ favorite since it was first launched in early August.
During the same debate, Kean charged that, regardless of his involvement, Malinowski should have moved to stop the bill.
“He was the top lobbyist for the organization, and they advocate against protecting children,” the Republican said. “So, either he was weak, he didn’t try to stop it.”
Rasmussen said that likely wouldn’t be enough to convince voters that Malinowski was pro-sex offender,
“I do think it’s a little bit of a stretch. As a voter, you want to see more. You want to see some evidence that Malinowski was actually against a Megan’s Law,” he said. “You want to see some personal skin in the game. You want to know that this is more than just an association. No matter how strong the association, you want to know that there’s a reflection of somebody’s direct beliefs.”
Hunterdon County GOP Chairman Gabe Plumer thinks that Malinowski could have a problem distancing himself from Human Rights Watch’s position on the 2006 crime bill.
“He can’t have it both ways,” Plumer said. “Malinowski has to own up for what his organization lobbied for on his watch.”
Plumer called on Malinowski to publicly disavow the position of his former employer on a national sex offender registry, something the Hunterdon County Democrat has not done.
“It’s absolutely stunning and sad that we need clarity on that question from a sitting congressman,” Plumer stated.
Somerset County Democratic Chair Peg Schaffer accused Kean of trying to deflect attention from his own record.
“Tom Kean Jr. knows full well the NRCC ad is flat out wrong,” Schaffer said.
Rasmussen said the attack could prove incredibly damaging if voters buy in. It could even be more damaging than a close association with Trump would be for Kean in the largely suburban seventh district.
But that would only the case “if you don’t scratch the surface further,” he said, adding that under close scrutiny the attack “falls apart because it’s not a direct link to Malinowski’s views.”
For Kean, ditching connections to Trump will likely prove trickier.
Unlike Trump, Pelosi or Reps. Rashida Tlaib (D-Michigan) and Ilhan Omar (D-Minnesota), two progressive first-term congresswomen who have become favored targets for conservatives, won’t appear on New Jersey’s ballots.
While railing against them may earn Kean favor among the district’s Republican base, it’s unlikely to persuade independents, let alone disaffected Democrats. The same can’t be said of Trump, whose approvals were 31 points underwater with independents last month, according to the Pew Research Center.
“It’s a very real argument to say, ‘a vote for Tom Kean is a vote for President Trump’s agenda’ because we understand enough about legislative politics to know that that’s how it works,” Rasmussen said.
Kean on Sunday said he’d back the president in November, though he chided the president for misrepresenting how deadly and contagious COVID-19 was, a step few Republicans have taken since recorded Trump interviews conducted by Washington Post Associate Editor Bob Woodward surfaced last week.