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Tom Kean, Jr. remains the best future prospect for a major Republican Party victory in New Jersey.
He is a superb state Senate Republican leader, with excellent policy insight and outstanding leadership skills. His ethics are beyond reproach, and he is a magnificent family man without a hint of personal scandal.
And Tom Kean, Jr. has the best political pedigree in the state: the son of New Jersey’s greatest governor in the 20th century, Tom Kean, and the grandson of the late Congressman Bob Kean, who will always have an honored place in my life for his role in 1) calling to the attention of the American public the horrors of the Holocaust in real time, as it was engulfing Nazi-dominated Europe; and 2) advocating that America open its doors to Holocaust refugees.
For most New Jersey political pundits, the question is which of two races will Tom Kean, Jr. choose to enter: 1) the 2020 House of Representatives race in New Jersey’s Seventh Congressional District against Democratic first term incumbent Tom Malinowski; or 2) the 2021 gubernatorial contest against incumbent Democratic Governor Phil Murphy.
My view, first and foremost is that Tom Kean, Jr. should not under any circumstances run against Tom Malinowski in 2020. Trump toxicity will be the overriding factor in 2020 New Jersey, whether the President leaves office in disgrace before the 2020 election, as I predict, or whether he is on top of the GOP ticket as the presidential reelection candidate. Among all the New Jersey suburban Congressional Districts, the Seventh is the one with Trump’s greatest unpopularity.
Nobody wrote more critically than I about Tom Malinowski and his record during the 2018 midterm election. I still have the same negative feelings about him as a Congressman. Malinowski will, however be an overwhelming reelection favorite. He has become a master of national media, and his fundraising will be far superior to that of Kean, Jr. Tom should not consider for a nanosecond a run against Tom Malinowski. It would be an act of political suicide.
Tom, Jr. would have a greater chance of success in a gubernatorial run against incumbent Democratic Governor Phil Murphy in 2021. He would first have to defeat Jack Ciattarelli in the Republican primary. And that is not a slam dunk. And if Kean, Jr. defeats Ciattarelli, he will still be a decided underdog against Phil Murphy.
Tom Kean, Jr. and Jack Ciattarelli are two of the most impressive New Jersey statewide GOP candidates since the inception of the 21st century. A primary between the two in 2021 will be very expensive, and the winner will definitely be at a financial disadvantage in facing Phil Murphy. The primary winner will still be burdened with the Trump albatross, even if Trump is no longer in office in 2021. The demographics – ethnic, gender, and ideological – still will work on behalf of Phil Murphy, despite his massive political ineptitude and his severely limited communication skills.
The GOP candidate in 2021, whether Tom Kean, Jr. or Jack Ciattarelli will only defeat Phil Murphy in the event of one of two severe Murphy blunders. The first would be the enactment by Murphy of a broad-based tax increase. Steve Sweeney won’t let this happen.
The second would be a personal scandal for which the electorate holds Phil Murphy and/or his very top aides responsible. Having observed the disgraceful handling by the Murphy administration of the sexual assault against Katie Brennan, it is clear to me that the electorate has an almost prohibitively high evidence threshold before it holds a governor responsible for his or her administration scandals.
Historical note: The last administration to lose an election due to criminal scandals and broad-based tax hike proposals was the administration of Bill Cahill in the GOP primary of 1973. Cahill had proposed the first- time enactment of an income tax, and his Secretary of State Paul Sherwin, his State Treasurer Joseph McCrane, and his state GOP chair Nelson Gross were all indicted and eventually convicted on campaign finance related charges. The Murphy administration hasn’t nearly approached this level of scandal – yet.
There is a third election that doesn’t take place for another five years, but in my view presents the best long range prospect for a Tom Kean, Jr. statewide victory: the US Senate election of 2024, in which Democratic US Senator Bob Menendez, then age 70 will be seeking reelection for a fourth consecutive term. Kean, Jr. will then be 56.
I thought that in 2018, Tom Kean, Jr. had by far the best chance of defeating Bob Menendez in the incumbent Senator’s successful bid for a third term. Instead, the GOP lost with its most inept statewide candidate in recent memory, Bob Hugin.
By 2024, while much of the corruption image of Bob Menendez may have receded, he will be running for reelection with the baggage of the then incumbent Democratic presidential administration. He will be 70 years old, and voters may prefer a younger alternative. On the Republican side, the personal aspect of the Trump albatross, namely Donald himself, will no longer be present.
So 2024 may be the best statewide election year for Tom Kean, Jr. His legislative and policy experience would make him a superb US Senator.
If I were having a conversation with Tom Kean, Jr. about this, I would say two things to him.
First, a Republican running against Tom Malinowski in 2020 is on a fool’s errand. Tom Kean, Jr., you’re no fool! Secondly, all good things come to him that waits. In your case, Tom, Jr., the good thing that will come to you will be a US Senate seat.
Alan J. Steinberg served as Regional Administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of former President George W. Bush and as Executive Director of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission under former New Jersey Governor Christie Whitman.