Kean, Jr.’s Quest to Abide Where Lance and Frelinghuysen Could Not

Kean

It seems inevitable that it would come to this for that last politically surviving third of an aristocratic triumvirate reduced now to a single-standing totem otherwise known as Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean, Jr., in the era of President Donald J. Trump. In his own endearing way, Trump already contributed to unhorsing those other remnants of the N.J. Republican Party round table.

Scion of a still-surviving former governor respected for his urbanity and never-let-’em-see-ya’-sweat statehouse agility, Kean the younger apparently has in mind a different variation on a theme of perpetually smiling noblesse oblige in the face of an anger management-oblivious reality TV show star turned president than his fellow purveyors of political family dignity.

“I’m very disappointed in Tom Kean,” Westfield Mayor Shelley Brindle last fall said of the Republican state senator from her hometown running to secure the Republican nomination to run against Malinowski in 2020.

“We’ve worked well together,” said the Democrat, “but he has jumped aboard the Trump bandwagon.”

The “Trump bandwagon.” It amounted to a fairly cavalier dismissal of a name Republicans wanted to believe could project beyond the meaner dimensions of what Trump had come to constitute for most Central Jersey voters. It was the last name of its kind on the landscape; among the last options, in fact, from among that dwindling fraternity of intergenerational gentility that included former Governor Christie Todd Whitman and the eminently 2021 vulnerable state Senator Kip Bateman (R-16).

They all had the examples right in front of them.

GOP Congressmen
Lance and Frelinghuysen

Sons of fathers who respectively were themselves a former congressman and state senator, former U.S. Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen and former U.S. Rep. Leonard Lance in the fateful lead-up to 2018 grappled separately with the jarring presence of the country’s chief executive, who epitomized the opposite of everything they prized in public: restraint, good manners, good breeding, reluctance to indulge in obnoxious endzone dances, self aggrandizement, and Twitter tantrums.

“I think he ought to leave his tweets at home,” a beleagured-looking Frelinghuysen told reporters in March of 2017, in reference to the president. A year later, amid reports of the Trump Administration opposing the New Jersey Gateway Tunnel project (for which the congressman had secured funding), ostensibly to stick it to the Northeast where support for the president was weak, Frelinghuysen pulled the plug on a run for a 13th term in federal office, gradually disappearing from public view as howls ensued from fellow party members about dereliction of duty and political cowardice in the face of a suburban-stampeding enemy. Leading an anti-Trump movement, Democrat Mikie Sherrill, a retired Navy helicopter pilot, would landslide her stand-in Republican opponent in a district owned by Republicans going back to 1984.

Facing his own 2018 reelection prospects as Frelinghuysen folded, Lance, for his part, adopted a different approach, digging in his heels and publicly opposing Trump on critical occasions in an attempt to present an independent-at-all-costs brand name in a 7th District adjacent to Frelinghuysens where the same flames of rebellion roiled.

Unlike Frelinghuysem, who opted out of town halls rather than endure the scourge of progressive scorn, Lance stuck his face in the fire, letting people trample on him and Trump as cohabitants of the same party at Raritan Valley Community College. While Frelinghuysen ultimately voted to repeal Obamacare, Lance delicately tried to thread a needle when he voted the Republican Party’s replacement plan for Obamacare out of committee, then opposed the legislation on the House floor along with just 19 other members of his own party. Still, the congressman’s opposition to Planned Parenthood funding clung to him at precisely the wrong time, as the president’s perceived misogyny motivated women voters to go to the polls.

Prodded by NJTV correspondent Brianna Vannozzi in his debate with Democratic challenger Tom

Lance
Lance

Malinowski, the uncomfortable congressman gave Trump a “B” grade. Malinowski drilled into the incumbent. “We have a problem,” said the Democrat. “We are not going to solve that problem by saying, ‘oh, I wish he wouldn’t tweet so much.’” It was a running Malinowski theme. Lance wasn’t sufficiently muscular to oppose a menacing chief executive, even if Trump’s White House seethed over the Central Jersey Republican’s gyrations, going so far as to entertain talks with possible primary challengers if Lance didn’t simply consistently back their agenda. Then Malinowski himself exposed the congressman’s inconsistency when he noted that Lance had voted to gut the Affordable Care Act 60 times before tacking to a moderate position as the prospect of a tough reelection battle loomed.

Lance went down fighting to Malinowski, 47-52%, an ignominious, serpentine, serpentine-like end to the moderate, oriinally-strong-on-the-environment Republican who occupied the same senate minority leader seat that Kean did before the younger man’s advance up the party seniority ladder.

Now comes Kean ($1 million in the campaign bank as of late last year, compared to his incumbent opponent’s $1.5 million), the most evident upholder of his father’s cross-the-aisle-friendly politics, whose run for office, presumably on a ticket with an impeachment-saddled, reelection-seeking Trump, signifies the denouement of the last circle of New Jersey’s intergenerational office-holding Republican families. His decision to run toward Trump by running with Trump signifies not only a departure from Frelinghuysen and Lance, but from Whitman and Bateman, who have repeatedly made their disgust manifest.

Whitman
Whitman

Whitman penned a viral op-ed calling Trump unfit for office. Bateman joined state lawmaking Democrats in support of a bill specifically designed to keep Trump off the 2020 ballot in New Jersey by requiring presidential candidates to release their tax returns. “Kip Bateman needs to look at recent elections,” Save Jersey blogger Matt Rooney told 101.5 FM’s Bill Spadea. “Ask Leonard Lance. Ask Bob Hugin. Running away from Donald Trump and leading with an apology is not going to win back these people in New Jersey or anywhere else who are voting against the Republican Party. You need to begin to explain to people what we stand for, create a real contrast with the status quo — these nuts that we’ve got leading us like Cory Booker and Phil Murphy — and then at that point people will begin to take you seriously. [Bateman]’s not going to get any good will that way.”

When Kean kicked off, he obviously attempted to emphasize his own family’s history.

InsiderNJ columnist Fred Snowflack was in the room that night in Clark.

“I’m a Tom Kean Republican,” he said… to an overflow crowd jammed into the local American Legion hall. Kean Jr., was announcing his candidacy for the 7th District congressional seat now held by Democrat Tom Malinowski.

The reference was to his father, Tom Kean Sr., who served two terms as governor in the 1980’s.
The term, “Tom Kean Republican,” is not merely the type of throwaway line one often hears at political gatherings.

Over the years in New Jersey politics, it has come to mean two things – a moderate Republican as opposed to an uncompromising right winger and an official who sees the opposition as just that, not an enemy to be vanquished at all costs.

Tom Kean, Jr., Tom Kean, Tony Bucco, and Doug Steinhardt.
Tom Kean, Jr., Tom Kean, Tony Bucco, and Doug Steinhardt.

But to Brindle’s point, especially given the wreckage around him of other genteel family legacies turned to Revolutionary War-era stone, Kean faces the prospect – amid the preponderance of issues aimed by this administration at New Jersey (overridingly on Gateway and SALT), presumably out of political spite – of running against himself, or against his father, by occupying the same lane as the president.

The alliances bespeak of same-foxhole mindset. Launched in September of last year to help the candidate on the fundraising front, Perfect Together PAC features the advisory presence of Bill Stepien, Trump’s political director, formerly political minder for Governor Chris Christie. A short time later, Snowflack wrote about Christie’s political ally Bill Palatucci, urging people in an email to forget about raising money for CD-7 Republican Primary candidate Rosemary Becchi, who at one time – long before Kean jumped in the 2020 contest – flirted with the possibility of receiving Trump-friendly support to oust Lance in the 2018 Primary.

Kean, Jr. and Christie were never overly friendly, the seeds of their political acrimony exposed most dramatically during the governor’s 2013 reelection campaign, when, hoping to coattail pre-Bridgegate Christie fever, the senate minority leader personally selected and championed Republican senate candidates in South Jersey districts. Christie didn’t campaign with those candidates. Nor did his name appear on lawn signs with them as he burnished the North Jersey support of Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo and state Senator Brian P. Stack (D-33), both Democrats.

Ironically – or not – one of those South Jersey Democrats he left alone was then-state Senator Jeff Van Drew (D-2), whose Kean-supported and Christie-abandoned rival watched in horror as Van Drew, presumably on the strength of deal-making above Kean’s paygrade, walked back into office with a 59-39% blowout victory. Now, deprived of Christie in the governor’s office in a district Trump won by single digits in 2016, but aided by the political connective Trump tissue of key Christie allies Palatucci and Stepien, Congressman Van Drew, having switched parties from Democrat to Republican, later this month will welcome Trump to a Wildwood campaign rally in a state where the SALT deduction-limiting tax president was supposedly – but for a golf course and downbeat gambling mecca association – a statewide nemesis.  With Van Drew especially, to a lesser extent Kean, and certainly by capitalizing on intra-party rivalries within the Democratic Party, Trump forces hope to use New Jersey as evidence of an enemy territory beachhead.

In forging those closer ties to Trump’s GOP, had Kean – denounced by Christie in the aftermath of 2013 because of his temerity to actually advance the cause of people in his own party rather than acquiesce to Democrats – become what he beheld in the name of political expediency? Or was he merely the same enduring Republican, so loyal to the party and steadfast in the belief of his own name, that even now he trusted in his ability to transcend – and inspire collective transcendence? Whatever the case, like Lance before him, Kean will have to defend – for all his public expressions of moderation – a basically Republican Party record in a district – Brindle’s 2017 win, not to mention Malinowski’s 2018 victory prime exhibits – changed from the times of leafy yore. Republicans in the district still edge Democrats – 153K to 149K registereds – in a collision for the independent vote.

His allies will deny it but his 0-2 record in federal elections – and the infamy of a very shaky 2006

Malinowski
Malinowski

performance on foreign policy in his match-up with Bob Menendez, now, at precisely the time, given the weightiness of ongoing incoming headlines, when Malinowski – a former foreign service official in the Obama Administration – will be able to speak surgically on Iran in a well-educated district, arguably put Kean in political hail Mary mode. There’s buzz about this Malinowski race being his Waterloo (an unfortunate metaphor given the absence of a Battle of Saorgio or Battle of the Pyramids on his resume), which Assemblyman Jon Bramnick’s (R-21) public mulling of a 2021 gubernatorial run aims to quell. If Bramnick (who has consistently run away from Trump) were to actually run for governor, he wouldn’t run again for the seat Kean presumably would abandon in the aftermath of a win over Malinowski (we assume Bramnick would fill it for the duration of the term), or – amid inevitable internal grumblings – be faced to consider giving up in the brutal aftermath of his third federal loss.

Over the last few days, Malinowski and Kean made the reorganization rounds, each projecting barely veiled hot stove irritation at the presence of the other, civility in close unwilled proximity demanding their hands dart toward each other, just enough to touch – and withdraw. At its worst a contest of insipid austerity, colorless in its head-to-head matchup of middle aged white males in an atmosphere of female political radiance, cadaverous traditions close-at-hand; at its best the CD7 contest arguably collides real-impact contradictions, undertaken not only between the two hardly demagogic principals (presuming Kean gets through his primary with Becchi) but within a Republican Party within a party, within the auspices of a domineering, seemingly very un-Kean-like personality.

Tom Giblin with Governor Phil Murphy.
Tom Giblin with Governor Phil Murphy; and Kean intently listening to rival Malinowski.
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