Rep. Tom Malinowski is already written off by much of the New Jersey political establishment.
The 56-year-old two-term Democrat was reelected in 2020 by just 1 percentage point over his Republican opponent, then-state Sen. Tom Kean Jr. That was before reports surfaced that Malinowski failed to disclose hundreds of thousands of dollars in stock trades, resulting in an ongoing House ethics investigation.
And it was before New Jersey Democrats sacrificed Malinowski in redistricting, drawing his 7th Congressional District to be more friendly to Republicans in order to shore up other potentially vulnerable Democratic incumbents.
Then came the draft Supreme Court opinion overturning Roe v. Wade.
There’s been plenty of talk about how backlash to the Supreme Court’s decision on abortion could give Democrats a much-needed midterm boost. If that happens, Malinowski may have a better chance at saving his seat.
His initial 2018 victory in what was then a historically Republican district was widely attributed to the shift among suburban women toward the Democratic Party during the Trump era. Many of those well-heeled areas, despite the new boundaries, remain part of his district.
“This is now much more real,” Malinowski said in a phone interview. “It’s just a draft opinion. Then there will be a decision. Then there will be [state anti-abortion] laws passed. And then there will be enforcement of those laws. And all of this is going to happen before November.”
Kean, a 22-year veteran of the state Legislature and scion of one of New Jersey’s most vaunted political dynasties — his father, Tom Kean Sr., remains the state’s most popular living former governor — is the favorite in a crowded Republican field to take on Malinowski again this year.
Kean, who supports abortion rights, has not been eager to talk about the issue, even as he faces numerous challenges from the right in the June 7 primary. His campaign declined an interview for this article.
The morning after POLITICO published the Supreme Court’s draft decision, Malinowski attended an otherwise unrelated press conference with New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, a fellow Democrat, and said that if Republicans take control of Congress and then the White House, they’ll seek a national ban on abortion.
“The same people who have been pressing for the Supreme Court to do this are also at the same time pushing for the United States Congress, trying to elect a majority to the United States Congress that will enact a nationwide abortion ban,” he said.
But even though public opinion polls consistently show strong support for abortion rights, there’s been plenty of skepticism over whether the issue will help turning out Democratic voters or sway undecided voters who may be more concerned with issues like inflation. A comment by New Jersey Democratic operative Julie Roginsky in a recent op-ed in the state’s largest newspaper, The Star-Ledger, drew notice from Democrats and Republicans.
“[A]s someone who elects candidates for a living, I have not seen one focus group — not a one — where abortion is the animating factor for undecided voters,” Roginsky wrote in the column. “When you ask voters about Roe v. Wade, support for it polls off the charts, but issues that poll well are not necessarily issues that get voters to the polls.”
Jeanette Hoffman, a pro-abortion rights Republican who runs the firm Marathon Public Strategies and is a former executive director of the New Jersey Republican State Committee, agreed with that assessment.
“Everything is going to be a referendum on Biden and what’s going on in our economy, with gas prices,” Hoffman said in an interview.
Malinowski said that might not be the case this year.
“I think what [Roginsky] said has been true for a long time, but I don’t think it’s going to be true in a world where states are actually criminalizing abortion at all stages, even where the life of the mother is at risk,” he said. “The point I would make is that wherever Republicans are in power, they don’t seem to be doing a lot about economic issues. They’re focusing on culture wars.”
Kean describes himself as “pro-choice,” but as a member of the Legislature, he voted against a bill that enshrined abortion into New Jersey law and repeatedly refused to vote to overturn former Gov. Chris Christie’s cuts to Planned Parenthood funding.
Jennifer Holdsworth Karp, a former political director for the New Jersey Democratic State Committee, agrees with Malinowski that abortion will be more of a motivator this year.
“Unlike in 2016 and 2018, when the loss of choice was theoretical even when warnings were sounded, the reality has now set in,” she said in an interview. “Voters will soon start to prioritize what will spur them to the polls. … While the economy is still paramount, traditional Republican and unaffiliated voters are rejecting the extreme culture war issues that the GOP is running on.”
Kean has run a quiet campaign thus far, engaging in no debates with his many Republican opponents and granting few interviews. Asked by POLITICO earlier this month about the Supreme Court’s draft opinion, he issued a statement that avoided the implications of the potential decision itself.
“We’re talking about a leaked working document from February and the court will make their final ruling in June,” he said in a statement on May 3. ”Ultimately, I stand with the vast majority of New Jerseyans against Tom Malinowski’s radical position of abortion on demand right up until the moment of birth.”
Abortion later in pregnancy is rare and is typically done to protect the life of the mother or if the fetus will not survive. New Jersey is one of several states that does not explicitly ban abortion at any stage.
Asked if Kean is correct that he supports abortion access “right up until the moment of birth,” Malinowski called Kean’s attack disingenuous.
“You’d have to be completely disconnected from reality to believe that a woman is going to be in her eighth month of pregnancy, the point at which most parents have picked out a name for their babies, purchased clothes and a crib and planned a life with that child, and then … suddenly, for the heck of it, terminate the pregnancy,” he said.
“At this point, I’m going to blow up and remind [Kean] that half the states in the country, because his party is in power there, are about to start arresting women or their doctors for having an abortion at any point. So don’t talk to me about some hypotheticals.”