Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-Ringoes) and Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean (R-Westfield) will square off in a their first debate in what is perhaps the state’s most closely watched House race of the cycle Sunday evening.
The debate is sponsored by the New Jersey Globe.
Malinowski, a first-term congressman who won his seat in a nationwide wave election that saw Democrats retake the House in 2018, intends to paint his Republican challenger as a bought-and-paid-for politician.
“Malinowski, he doesn’t take corporate PAC money. He stands for his constituents,” a Malinowski campaign source said. “Comparatively, Tom Kean has been taking money for different special interests, especially pharmaceuticals, for his 20-year career in Trenton. That’s reflected in his votes and his record.”
Kean, a longtime, moderate Republican leader and the son of the still-popular former Gov. Tom Kean Sr., intends to push his bipartisan credentials and to attack Malinowski on his own two years in Congress, and possibly over his time with Human Rights Watch, where Malinowski was Washington director from 2001 to 2013, his campaign said.
They’re also expecting Malinowski to attack Kean over President Donald Trump.
“Congressman Malinowski will desperately try to hold Senator Kean accountable for others while taking no responsibility for his own actions,” the minority leader’s campaign said. “We look forward to exposing his consistent record of shortchanging his constituents and highlighting Senator Kean’s history of bipartisan accomplishments.”
Kean, much like his longtime running-mate Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick (R-Westfield), has so far kept Trump at arm’s length.
Though he attended a rally Trump held in support of Rep. Jeff Van Drew (R-Dennis) following the congressman’s defection to the GOP, Kean has otherwise steered clear of invoking the president — in a positive light or otherwise — during his congressional bid.
Opposite Malinowski, that might may change.
“The Battle of the Toms is the latest opportunity for Tom Kean to define his campaign outside of its proximity with the top of the ticket,” said Micah Rasmussen, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University. “Kean has not yet found the balance he needs to strike between keeping a safe distance and not incurring the wrath of Trump supporters. That’s not an easy thing to do in an era of nationalized politics, where you’re for or against Trump, but it’s what I’ll be listening for.”
Though Reps. Mikie Sherrill (D-Montclair), Van Drew — then a Democrat — and Andy Kim (D-Marlton) most often avoided criticizing the president during their 2018 bids, Malinowski had no such compunctions, gambling that support for the president was soft in his affluent, largely suburban district.
That gamble worked against Rep. Leonard Lance (R-Clinton Township), a mild-mannered moderate who was swept out of the House along with four other New Jersey Republicans, two of whom did not seek re-election.
Rasmussen figured Malinowski would renew those attacks Sunday.
“His goal is to hang our suburban-challenged President around Kean’s neck,” he said.