Tom Kean, Jr. is certain that his record of crossing party lines and finding bi-partisan solutions is exactly what voters of New Jersey’s 7th district want in their congressman.
Kean, the minority leader of the New Jersey State Senate, won Republican primary on Tuesday with massive 82% of the vote and has now set his sights on freshman Democratic congressman Tom Malinowski in an enormously competitive district.
“There’s a very clear path to victory. People know me. They know my history of fighting on their behalf,” Kean said in an interview with the New Jersey Globe.
Kean says that voters want a trouble-shooter representing them in Congress and says his work in the state legislature since winning a special election in 2001 shows that type of leadership is his secret sauce.
“On infrastructure issues, I’ve led the way. On making health care and prescription drugs more affordable, I’ve led the way. Blocking billions of dollars in spending and tax increases, I’ve led the way,” he said. “This is a district that wants to send a creative problem solver down to Washington, DC who can identify the issues and find the solution.”
The mission over the next four months, as Kean sees it, is to make the case that Malinowski isn’t the right fit for the district.
“There’s a contrast of my history of reaching across the aisle and finding solutions and my opponent voting with Nancy Pelosi 97% of the time and focusing on the views and the values of the Washington leadership versus focus on the solutions that will actually solve the issues that we’re facing right now,” Kean argued.
Instead of Malinowski, who became the first Democrat to win the 7th since 1954 when he unseated five-term Rep. Leonard Lane in the 2018 mid-term elections, Kean thinks he’s better suited to get thing done.
“We need to go send an individual to go down to Washington, DC who can actually walk across the aisle to restore the SALT deduction. We need an individual to go down to Washington, DC who can make sure the Gateway tunnel is actually completed for our constituents,” said Kean. “We need to send an individual down to Washington, DC who understands the importance of job creation and innovation. We need to send an individual down to Washington DC who can fix the broken health care system.”
Part of Kean’s pitch is that Malinowski isn’t as much of an independent advocate for his constituents as he is a follower of Pelosi and the agenda of the national Democratic Party.
“There’s no amount of money that will paper over the fact that he has followed the leadership of the party leaders in Washington, DC versus focusing on the solutions actually focusing on the needs of the people of this district,” he said.
Still, Kean steered clear of saying whether President Donald Trump was an albatross or an asset in a part of New Jersey that Malinowski says is more closely identifies with Mitt Romney than Donald Trump.
“This election is about the people’s house. It’s not about the White House,” Kean insisted.
Hillary Clinton beat Trump in the 7th four years ago by one percentage point – something that helped put Lance on the radar screen as a potentially vulnerable incumbent in a blue wave election.
When the district was drawn after the 2010 census, the 7th had 29,997 more Republicans than Democrats. The GOP lost their registration advantage earlier this year and now the 7th has 4,069 more Democrats than Republicans.
Kean points to his own legislative district, which has 7,617 more Democrats than Republicans. He’s won the district six times by comfortable margins, carrying municipalities like Westfield and Summit – the same Democratic-leaning suburban swing towns where Malinowski swamped Lance two years ago. Although it’s been nearly a decade since he lost Millburn — a town Malinowski carried with 72% in the last election — in redistricting, Kean won it twice under the old map.
“I think the people in this district know me. They know I’ve been here for them. They know I’ve advocated for them, and they know that Tom Malinowski told everybody two years that he’d reach across the aisle and be bi-partisan when he went to Washington,” Kean said. “Since that time, he’s been anything but.”
Kean said that he adjusted immediately to the challenges of campaigning as the state deals with the short and long-term effects of COVID-19. That includes limited in-person campaigning and fundraising.
“We are running an innovative campaign. We were virtual from the very beginning of the pandemic. We have 75 town captains and a virtual network,” Kean said. “We’ve used our platform to focus on food and supply delivery. We’ve got a very strong presence in every one of the six counties in this district.”
If he has to, Kean says, he’s prepared to remain in virtual mode through Election Day.
Kean’s passion as a legislator has been an 18-year fight to block tax increases and make New Jersey more affordable to his constituents.
Now as a congressional challenger, Kean seems convinced that voters are going to vote their pocketbook in the November election.
And Kean plans to make the case that Malinowski has dropped the ball on economic issues during his first year and a half in the U.S. House of Representatives.
“He’s voted to kill literally tens of thousands of jobs in his own congressional district – well-paying jobs, innovation-related jobs. And the people in this district will know that,” Kean said. “There’s a very strong difference between my background of finding solutions and my opponents.”
Part of the problem for Malinowski, Kean says, is that he’s a little too Washington and not enough Jersey.
“He moved to Washington, DC over 25 years ago and stayed through thick and thin,” Kean told the Globe. “Clearly, it’s impacted his thinking.”
The 51-year-old Kean is trying to strike a chord among central and western New Jersey voters that seems reminiscent of the brand of politics used by his father, former Gov. Thomas H. Kean, and his later grandfather, Robert W. Kean, who spent 20 years in the U.S. Congress.
Both of them excelled at maintaining relationships with both parties as a way of delivering for their constituents, and both of them knew how to throw a punch exactly when they needed to.
As a congressman, Kean want to continue his fight for affordable prescription drugs – that’s a tough needle to thread in a district that might have the highest number of pharmaceutical company employees in the state – and his advocacy of infrastructure issues.
“These are all priorities of the constituents” he said. “This is a district that desires that.
While discussing his campaign, Kean frequently comes back to a theme that seems to play a central role in his own view of public service.
“My focus has always been to work with the people who have been sent by their constituents do to the job on their behalf,” Kean said. “That’s what I’ve done in Trenton, whether in the majority party or in the minority party and that’s what I’ll do in Washington, DC.”