New Jersey’s Seventh Congressional District was redrawn last year specifically to boost the chances of Republicans. It worked.
Now, Democrats are trying to win back the seat. But rather than turn to a centrist who mirrors the conservative ethos of the region, the party appears to be coalescing around a candidate who for four years has been the face of New Jersey’s progressive left: Sue Altman.
Ms. Altman, who leads the state’s liberal-leaning Working Families Alliance and is an ally of Gov. Philip D. Murphy, is expected to announce her candidacy Wednesday morning.
“We’ve trained hard in New Jersey to fight corruption,” Ms. Altman, 41, said in an interview. “And I’m ready to turn these skills toward a bigger, much more urgent fight.”
Last year, redistricting shored up the odds of victory for the incumbent party in 11 of New Jersey’s 12 congressional districts. The only incumbent to lose was Tom Malinowski, a two-term Democrat who represented the Seventh Congressional District, which stretches from one side of northern New Jersey to the other and takes in mainly suburban and rural communities.
Tom Kean Jr., a former Republican state lawmaker and namesake of a well-liked governor, defeated Mr. Malinowski in November by 8,691 votes, or roughly three percentage points, to join Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s fractious, nine-member majority in Washington.
The seat has been identified as a key target of Democrats hoping to regain control of the House. Over Memorial Day weekend, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee ran an ad on a highway billboard that yoked Mr. Kean to former President Donald J. Trump, offering a peek at what is likely to be a nationwide strategy next year in races that coincide with the presidential contest.
With a year and a half before the election, it is likely that additional Democratic challengers to Mr. Kean will emerge. But Ms. Altman’s early entry and name recognition gives her a clear edge in a race that even the state’s Democratic Party chairman, LeRoy J. Jones Jr., acknowledges will be an uphill fight.
“Sue Altman is a formidable candidate — and so far the only candidate,” Mr. Jones said. “Without hearing from anyone else, Sue is in a position to make her case to ultimately be the Democratic nominee.”
It is by some measures a counterintuitive choice. The candidate will be running from the left in a district where registered Republicans now outnumber Democrats by 16,000 voters.
Harrison Neely, a top political adviser to Mr. Kean, said Ms. Altman represented the “most divisive and extreme aspects of the fringe of her party.”
Mr. Neely said Mr. Kean’s focus on reducing the cost of living in New Jersey and his efforts to work across the aisle as a member of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus illustrated his “common-sense solutions to our national challenges.” He said he was confident Mr. Kean would be re-elected.
Ms. Altman said she too intended to focus on making New Jersey more affordable, while stressing the importance of abortion rights, the environment and gun safety.
“Moms and dads should not feel afraid to drop off kids at school, worried about a mass shooting,” she said. “We absolutely have to do something to stop it.”
Ms. Altman grew up in Clinton, N.J., and now lives in Lambertville, both of which are in Hunterdon County, an affluent region known for its horse farms.
A star high school and college basketball player, Ms. Altman also played at Oxford University while earning her M.B.A.
Her organizing tactics have earned her a reputation as a firebrand willing to throw punches.
She has led protest singalongs outside the offices of Representative Josh Gottheimer, a fellow Democrat, over his brinkmanship during negotiations over key pillars of President Biden’s infrastructure and social welfare agenda. She handed out fake million-dollar bills to mock George Norcross III, a longtime political power broker and frequent nemesis, and sparred with former Republican Gov. Chris Christie over school funding at a 2016 town hall.
“Pity the policy staffer whose job it is to explain something to Sue Altman,” said Jennifer Holdsworth, a Democratic strategist based in Washington with two decades of experience with campaigns in New Jersey.
“Even her detractors, her adversaries, would say she is incredibly smart on the issues.”
Robert Torricelli, a Democrat who lives in Seventh Congressional District and represented New Jersey in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, said he anticipated the race would be one of the premier nationwide matchups as Democrats work to chip away at the Republicans’ House majority.
“I actually think she’s exactly the right contrast to Tom Kean,” said Mr. Torricelli, who was influential in selecting candidates to run for Congress when he led the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee between 1999 and 2001. “Sue brings enormous energy.”
Mr. Torricelli said Ms. Altman’s anti-establishment résumé and her ability to appeal directly to women were likely to gain traction in a district filled with independent-minded voters.
“This is the kind of district where people think they’re Republicans,” he added. “But they’re also pro-environment, pro-choice and culturally progressive.”
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