A broad conservative field in the GOP fight to oust Malinowski from Congress
Two years after Democratic Representative Tom Malinowski’s congressional career ended after a narrow one-point win over then-state Sen. Tom Kean in what was one of the nation’s tightest contests in 2020, the 7th congressional district is teeming with Republican hopefuls.
Seven potential GOP congressmen have pitched bids in what is expected to be the most-watched congressional contest in the state. Foremost among them is Kean, who stepped down from his state duties to focus on his repeated challenge against the two-term Democrat.
Kean, whose campaign has refused repeated requests for an interview, emerged again as the leading frontrunner after winning official party support in every county in the district except Sussex, where the Republican organization of the county does not do major endorsements.
The district’s proximity to the 2020 race and changes to its boundaries in last year’s redistribution have cemented the 7th District as a prime target for Republicans nationwide as they seek to retake the House and Senate to Democrats after November’s midterm elections.
Malinowski District, which the GOP held for nearly 40 years before Malinowski’s 2018 victory over Rep. Leonard Lance, has become much more Republican with the addition of the entirety of Warren County and towns more heavily Sussex County Republicans when district lines were redrawn in December.
The incumbent also had to wrestle with the fallout from a series of stock trades it failed to disclose in a timely manner during the early months of the pandemic.
Who is running in the GOP primary?
Here’s who’s in the June 7 Republican primary ballot in the 7th District:
- Tom Kean
- MP Erik Peterson
- Former gubernatorial candidate Phil Rizzo
- Former investment banker John Isemann
- Mayor of Fredon John Flora
- Kevin Dorlan
- Sterling Schwab
Despite the challenges Malinowski faces, fundraising has been slow for Republican candidates, with Kean and his $1.5 million war chest being the only exception. Rizzo said he had $157,612 in hand at the end of March compared to $33,329 for Isemann and $23,113 for Peterson. Dorlan, the only remaining candidate who reported campaign finance figures to the Federal Election Commission, had taken in just $5,493.
Malinowski, who faces a primary challenge from pro-Trump Democrat Roger Bacon, had more than $3.4 million in reserves at the end of the last reporting period.
Isemann, a 27-year-old first-time candidate who became one of Kean’s most serious challengers after forcing the former minority leader to a runoff for Morris County GOP support, tried to stand carve out a place between the frontrunners and a group of lesser-known conservative candidates.
He said his campaign is aimed at securing the votes of young voters who rarely vote in midterm primaries but are seeing their influence in elections grow amid generational demographic shifts.
“We just keep fielding the same Republicans and losing to the same Democrats, and those margins get wider and wider, and our state falls deeper and deeper into the reservoir,” Isemann said.
Assemblyman Erik Peterson (R-Hunterdon), already one of New Jersey’s most conservative elected officials, is seeking to secure his path by relying heavily on conservative credentials, including those earned during protests against the Statehouse vaccine rules last year, and questioning those of its opponents.
“There is a huge difference here. These guys are just rhetoric. I actually have a record,” Peterson said. “I am the only proven curator in the race. I am the only preservative that has been tried, tested and found to be a preservative.
Former gubernatorial candidate Phil Rizzo, Fredon Mayor John Flora, and two political newcomers — Kevin Dorlan and Sterling Schwab, who did not return requests for comment — also occupy the conservative space.
The concentration of conservatives worries a vote split like that seen between Rizzo and perennial candidate Hirsh Singh in last year’s gubernatorial election, when the two each won about a quarter of the vote, leaving the rest to former centrist MP Jack Ciattarelli.
That’s great for Flora, who alleges Rizzo pandered to Democrats in a January 2021 call to make Medicare for all.
“I would rather run and split the vote than allow someone like that to have a path and carry on as New Jersey politics and politics in this country have worked,” Flora said.
Rizzo said he was less concerned about splitting the vote and largely campaigned as if he was in a race between two candidates instead of one between seven. His campaign has “proven through fundraising and popular energy that there is no other viable opposition to Tom Kean,” he said.
This primary “is a two-man race,” said Rizzo, who challenged Kean to a debate and offered to pay the fee.
The former pastor’s animosity towards Kean and his selection as a party favorite is shared by others in the race.
“People ask me everyday why I want to do this, and I’ll be honest with you: I don’t want to do this. Nobody wants to be the voice against the establishment, but someone has to be,” Dorlan said, adding that he thinks “career politicians are out of touch with the people.”
Kean’s online presence, by contrast, rarely mentions his main opponents and instead focuses on attacks on the Democratic incumbent and rallying cries around conservative issues.
Most of Kean’s active Facebook ads are pushing supporters to sign a petition against the state’s sex-ed guidelines that have become a focal point for Republicans in New Jersey. Two others attack House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the House’s Progressive Democrats. None mention their main adversaries.
But there is still more infighting than agreed among Republican candidates, and few have been hesitant to drop bombs at their opponents, whose support and voters they may need in November.
“On the Republican side, we’re saying we’re carving a path between Kean and crazy,” Isemann said. “On the one hand you have centuries of political dynasty, and on the other you have political opportunists like Phil Rizzo.”
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