Former Rep. Tom Malinowski told the New Jersey Globe’s David Wildstein on Tuesday that he won't run to regain his old House seat from Republican Rep. Tom Kean Jr., but another well-connected figure may be interested in campaigning for North Jersey's 7th Congressional District.
Wildstein reported in March that Sue Altman, who runs the New Jersey Working Families Alliance, was considering seeking the Democratic nod for this competitive district, which Joe Biden took by a narrow 51-47 spread, and he now writes she “could emerge as a leading candidate” with Malinowski taking his name out of contention. Altman is a one-time Republican who emerged as a prominent force in state politics by challenging the power of longtime party boss George Norcross. (Her organization is the state affiliate of the national Working Families Party, which usually backs progressive Democrats rather than run its own general election candidates.)
Altman, Politico wrote last year, has been a crucial backer of Gov. Phil Murphy, especially during his first term when he worked to pass his agenda over Norcross supporters in the legislature. She doesn’t appear to have publicly expressed interest in taking on Kean, though she drew attention last month by organizing a protest against the congressman for failing to hold a single in-person town meeting.
It’s quite possible that others will also consider running for the 7th, which is based in the southwestern New York City suburbs and exurbs, now that they know they won’t face Malinowski. Few names, however, have emerged so far. Former state Sen. Raymond Lesniak, who would be 78 on Election Day, didn’t rule out the idea in February, but we haven’t heard anything from him since. Wildstein, meanwhile, says three other Democrats have decided not to run: Assemblyman Roy Freiman; former Treasury official Jim Johnson; and Matt Klapper, the chief of staff to U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland.
Anyone who wants to defeat Kean in the 7th District, which is entirely located in the ultra-expensive New York City media market, will be in for a difficult battle, but it’s one Democrats will want to engage in after the Republican's surprisingly underwhelming win last year. Kean, who is the son and namesake of the popular former governor from the 1980s, first challenged Malinowski in 2020 under the old map and held him to a 51-49 victory even as Biden was prevailing here 54-44.
Kean quickly made it clear he would run again after that close loss, while the incumbent’s standing took a hit after news broke that he’d failed to disclose millions in stock trades during the beginning of the pandemic. Malinowski's broker claimed the trades were made without the congressman's “input or prior knowledge,” but that did little to quiet intra-party fears that his political career would soon come to an end.
Malinowski's future only grew more dire when his own party decided to target him in redistricting. New Jersey Democrats preferred to sacrifice one of their own to ensure the rest of the state's delegation could enjoy friendlier districts, and it was Malinowski who drew the short straw: Democratic power brokers convinced the state’s bipartisan redistricting commission to adopt a map that slashed Biden’s margin of victory in the 7th from 10 points to just 4 while shoring up vulnerable members elsewhere.
Malinowski decided to run again anyway despite all the obstacles arrayed against him, but while he received some help from national Democrats, they did not make his contest a priority: Though the two largest outside groups on the GOP side ended up deploying $5.7 million to help Kean, their counterparts on the left spent just $1.4 million.
The intense Democratic pessimism may, however, have turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy: Kean, who had been expected to walk over Malinowski, prevailed by just a 51-49 margin. While a win is a win, Kean's squeaker—despite everything else seemingly going his way—will likely ensure that Democrats take a much bigger interest in this race in 2024.