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Tom Kean Jr. in his new TV spot, "More." (Photo: Kean for Congress via YouTube).

Three takeaways from N.J.’s early congressional ads

Two parties diverge significantly on issues of top importance

By Joey Fox, September 16 2022 4:30 pm

The traditional post-Labor Day start of the campaign season arrived last week, and with it came a deluge of ads in New Jersey’s most competitive congressional districts.

These early TV ads – there have been 12 so far, coming from six different campaigns – are a helpful window into what the two parties are prioritizing and what messages they think will help them win. Here are three takeaways based on what Democrats and Republicans have, and haven’t, been saying and doing in their ads.

Democrats talk about abortion, Republicans talk about inflation

The increasingly dominant narrative of the 2022 election is that, across the country, Democratic candidates are hoping to focus voters’ attention on abortion, while Republicans are instead trying to make the election a referendum on inflation.

The two respective strategies makes sense, given that voters broadly support legal abortion while giving low marks on the current state of the economy. But it’s made for an odd election cycle in which, in the words of The Atlantic’s Ronald Brownstein, the two parties are “talking past each other” – and New Jersey is no exception.

Of the four New Jersey Democrats who have released TV ads thus far, two devoted an entire spot to abortion: Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-Ringoes) said in his ad that “the MAGA crowd” shouldn’t be in charge of personal health decisions, while a nurse in Rep. Mikie Sherrill (D-Montclair)’s ad warned that “women will die” because of Republican abortion policies. 

A third, Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-Wyckoff), used his first TV spot to draw attention to a woman’s right to choose among a number of other issues he’s prioritized in Congress. Rep. Andy Kim (D-Moorestown) is the only one of the four who has yet to specifically mention abortion this cycle.

The two Republicans who have released ads so far, on the other hand, have both made inflation a key priority.

Former Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr. (R-Westfield), running against Malinowski, slammed Democrats for worsening inflation with “billions in wasteful spending”; an outside spot from the Congressional Leadership Fund similarly said that “no one blows taxpayer cash like Tom Malinowski.” And just this morning, Bob Healey Jr., Kim’s opponent, said that the “Washington madhouse” has made life more unaffordable for New Jerseyans.

That’s not to say abortion and inflation are the only issues on the two parties’ minds.

In his third TV ad, Malinowski resurrected a strategy he used constantly in his 2020 campaign against Kean: tying the longtime state politician to Donald Trump. While Kean is hardly a Trump acolyte, Malinowski’s ad says that “Trump and the MAGA crowd know they can count on Tom Kean Jr.” if he’s elected to Congress.

Healey used a digital ad to bring up sex education, another issue that’s captivated New Jersey politics this year, saying that Kim “has an extreme back-to-school agenda.” (Former gubernatorial nominee Jack Ciattarelli sent a fundraising email today on a similar topic, so private polling may show the sex ed issue is a winning one for Republicans.)

And members of both parties have brought up a variety of kitchen-table issues that are mainstays in American elections, including fostering American energy independence, lowering the cost of prescription drugs, and backing law enforcement.

But so far, abortion and inflation are the only policy issues to get dedicated TV spots, suggesting that they make up the primary battleground on which this year’s election will be fought.

Some incumbents are still introducing themselves

By now, Malinowski, Sherrill, Gottheimer, and Kim have each won at least two expensive and competitive congressional elections, so they’ve already introduced themselves to voters many times over. But all four still used their first ad spot of the cycle to define themselves once again, before a deluge of negative Republican ads might step in and do it for them.

The four introductory spots give each incumbent a succinct image: Kim as a family man, Gottheimer as a bipartisan problem solver, Malinowski as a fighter willing to stand up to bullies, and Sherrill as a veteran dedicated to public service.

Redistricting may have played a role in this decision. New Jersey’s new congressional map substantially altered all of the state’s most competitive districts, and each of the four incumbents have a lot of new prospective constituents to meet – especially in Kim’s 3rd district, where nearly half of its residents are new to the district.

Kean and Healey, on the other hand, have yet to release any general election ads focused primarily on themselves. Even though Healey in particular likely remains unknown to many New Jersey voters, the ads released by their campaigns have so far focused almost entirely on attacking Malinowski, Kim, and Joe Biden.

The playing field may be quite small

The six candidates who have released ads so far can tell us a lot about the race for the House, but also enlightening is which candidates haven’t released any ads despite Election Day being less than two months away.

Frank Pallotta and Paul DeGroot, running against Gottheimer and Sherrill, respectively, are both running for districts that the GOP controlled within the last decade – and yet neither seem to have run any TV or digital ads.

Though it’s possible to win a congressional race without ever going on the air, it’s certainly not common. Pallotta and DeGroot still have time to begin running ads, but the longer their campaigns remain off the airwaves, the easier it will be for Gottheimer and Sherrill to build up an insurmountable advantage.

The South Jersey-based 2nd district, where Rep. Jeff Van Drew (R-Dennis) faces Democrat Tim Alexander after winning competitive contests in 2018 and 2020, hasn’t seen any ad action at all. Alexander likely doesn’t have the money to run ads, while Van Drew may simply feel secure enough that he doesn’t see a need to dip into his hefty warchest.

And the Democratic-held 1st, 6th, and 9th districts, where Republicans saw glimmers of opportunity if 2022 turned into a truly disastrous year for Democrats, also have not seen any ads from either side. Given that the Republican candidates in all three have had relatively small fundraising hauls, those campaigns are likely to remain fully analog unless Democrats choose to use their money to go on the airwaves.

New Jersey witnessed no fewer than four districts flip from Republican to Democrat in 2018, and had five races decided by a margin of 10 points or less in 2020. There’s still time for more districts to activate, but it’s notable that coming off those highly competitive cycles, there are only two districts this year where both candidates have begun running ads.

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