The road to a Republican House runs through Rep. Tom Malinowski’s district in northern New Jersey.
But with fewer than two weeks before Election Day, Democratic groups in Washington seem to be shifting strategies to limit their losses by pumping money into bluer areas, as it becomes increasingly clear that they are unlikely to save the House.
Republicans need to win a net of only five seats to flip the chamber, a prospect made more probable after retirements left open seats in tough districts across the country. Yet here in a district that spans from the affluent New York suburbs to conservative rural regions, and where the two-term Democrat decided to run for reelection, liberal organizations have largely retreated to safer ground.
In an interview, Malinowski issued a blunt warning to his party.
“I don’t think the Democrats can hold on to the House without this district,” Malinowski told CNN, after knocking on voters’ doors on Wednesday. “I think this is a bellwether for the country.”
Democrats face a dilemma, as Republicans expand their offensive from Oregon to New England: shore up incumbents once viewed as locks or spread their resources into traditional battleground districts like Malinowski’s.
“If anyone is looking to pour some money our way, you know, we will certainly be receptive to it,” said Carol Senff, a voter who supports Malinowski.
The money spent here also appears to have given cover to Malinowski’s GOP opponent, former state Sen. Tom Kean Jr., who has mostly avoided public campaign events and shunned some local media journalists, banking on the money pouring into the race and the anti-incumbent environment to flip the pivotal seat.
From Labor Day through Election Day, Republicans have spent over $3 million more than Democrats in the district, according to AdImpact. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has reserved close to $100,000, compared to over $1.8 million by the National Republican Congressional Committee. And the Republicans’ top House Super PAC, the Congressional Leadership Fund, has reserved over $3.8 million – more than double its Democratic counterpart.
This week, House Majority PAC announced a last-minute, $10 million donation from former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, and launched additional ad buys for members across the country, including for New York Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, the DCCC chairman. None has been announced for Malinowski, although the DCCC is planning on making a new, six-figure ad buy in his district next week, according to a source.
National Democrats’ decision over how best to allocate their money echoed another made months ago by New Jersey Democrats to draw Malinowski into a less liberal district, and help other Democrats in the Garden State.
Malinowski beat his current opponent, Kean Jr., by about a point, or roughly 5,000 votes, in 2020. But since then, he’s had to defend himself from attacks based upon reports last year that he failed to disclose significant stock trades during the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as President Joe Biden’s unpopularity and rising prices for consumer goods.
But he says that the district – which he calls the “median district in the country” and split between the two parties – is calling for moderation, something he’s trying to sell to voters as he stumped at a local watering hole on Wednesday night.
“This is a district that wants leaders who get s*** done, not leaders who are bat s*** crazy,” he said.
Malinowski, 57, also downplayed concerns about outside groups’ spending, noting that his campaign raised more than his opponent’s, while also acknowledging: “We’re kind of left to our own devices.” He said that political organizations are “scared off” by having to play in the expensive New York media market, though House Majority PAC, a Super PAC, is spending more in New York than any other state, according to AdImpact.
James Singer, a DCCC spokesman, said that the House Democratic campaign arm has an office in the district and made “significant investments in field and communications” supporting Malinowski.
“The DCCC is committed to reelecting Congressman Malinowski, who has run a strong campaign that has him neck and neck with less than two weeks to go,” said Singer. “The Congressman and our allies are running effective ads highlighting the clear choice in this race.”
Kean, the 54-year-old former state Senate GOP leader, son of former Gov. Tom Kean, Sr., and grandson of the late Rep. Robert Winthrop Kean, is a formidable challenger, who has attacked Malinowski for inflation and over ethics and accused him of being a puppet for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
“Instead of listening to the economists, instead of listening to his constituents, he followed Nancy Pelosi’s lead 100% of the time, and as a result we’ve got this out of control inflation,” said Kean at an October debate sponsored by the New Jersey Globe.
On the GOP efforts to tie him to the speaker, Malinowski fired back: “They’ve been doing that ever since 2018. Nobody here cares.”
But Malinowski, who defended his votes on a range of issues like infrastructure that put him in line with Pelosi, also said in the interview that he would not support her again for another leadership position, noting she promised in the past to step aside at the end of the current Congress.
“I expect to vote for somebody else,” he said.
Kean’s allies have also pointed to Business Insider, The New York Times and Associated Press reports detailing that he failed to properly disclose stock trades between 2019 and 2020 that were potentially worth millions of dollars. Last year, the House Ethics Committee voted to review Malinowski’s conduct.
“That’s why people don’t trust Tom Malinowski, because he’s not being honest with them,” said Kean at the debate.
In the CNN interview, Malinowski defended himself from the attacks on his character, saying he has put his assets in a blind trust and supports legislation to ban member stock trading. “All I did was file paperwork late,” Malinowski said. “It’s not nice to be lied about on TV incessantly.”
The House Ethics Committee declined to comment.
Kean has largely avoided holding public events; his campaign declined multiple requests for comment or to divulge the candidate’s whereabouts this week. Malinowski told CNN that Kean “refuses to answer questions about former President (Donald) Trump and January 6,” or abortion, or how exactly he would fight inflation.
“I would pay good money to introduce him to every single voter in my district; I would win in a landslide,” Malinowski said. “And his handlers are sadly correct to rely on this outside money and the TV ads to do the work for him.”
When asked if he’s seen Kean campaigning much around town, former Bridgewater Republican Mayor Dan Hayes, a Malinowski supporter, said, “No. … I do not.”
Kean has said in statements that he supports an abortion ban decided by the states after 20 weeks of pregnancy, with exceptions for cases of rape, incest and when the health of the mother is at risk. On inflation, Malinowski has emphasized bringing manufacturing jobs back to America and making the US less reliant on supply chains from China, while Kean has said he’d reduce government spending and promote energy independence.
The New Jersey Democrat has also tried to undermine Kean’s pedigree, noting that Kean Sr. said that Trump was “not fit” to serve as president again – a view his son has not shared.
“I’m running against someone who’d rather break with his own father than break with Donald Trump,” Malinowski told CNN.
“I think what most people in districts like this want is moderation, pragmatism, problem solving, not MAGA, not performance artists, not people who are going to use lies and violence to stay in power when they lose an election,” Malinowski added.
In 2018, Malinowski, a former Washington Director for Human Rights Watch and Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor in the Obama era, narrowly beat GOP Rep. Leonard Lance in the historically red seat.
Lance told CNN that Kean had a number of advantages this year, including running in a redrawn district, with Trump off the ballot, the economy the top issue and a “family legacy” to build upon.
“This seat is in play,” Lance said.
CNN’s David Wright and Morgan Rimmer contributed to this report.