PHILLIPSBURG, N.J. - One of New Jersey's biggest midterm races is that for the 7th Congressional District, which has been traditionally moderate.

Republicans were hopeful the latest redistricting maps would make it easier to flip this seat, but experts say social issues have slowed that momentum.

Efforts to connect one of the candidates to former President Donald Trump are being seen as both a pro and a con.

"Having Trump's back or having a backbone?" These words play in an ad hitting New Jersey's airwaves, as Congressman Tom Malinowski tries to beat Republican challenger Tom Kean.

"Trump and the MAGA crowd know they can count on Tom Kean Jr. because Tom Kean Jr. promised them, no matter what," said the ad.

Malinowski says it's not his campaign tying Kean to former President Trump, but rather, Kean himself.

"He sent a mailer to Republican voters," said Malinowski.

Multiple ads paid for by the New Jersey Republican State Committee said, "Tom Kean Jr. supports the Trump agenda."

"We were just very surprised that given that it's 2022 and most Americans want to move on from all of that drama," said Malinowski. "My message to voters is: I'm going to have New Jersey's back."

"Donald Trump has a low approval rating in the state among New Jerseyans," said Ashley Koning, the director at the Rutgers-Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling.

Koning says connecting politicians is a shortcut, of sorts, to let voters know where someone stands.

"Candidates always want to tie their opponent to somebody that people disparage or despise or loathe, and so, we see that on both sides," said Koning. "We see that Democratic candidates will often be tied to Nancy Pelosi."

Kean does connect Malinowski to Pelosi; it's one of his campaign's three main claims that we examined in our last Behind the Ballot story.

"It's a fiscally right state, but a socially left state," Koning said of New Jersey.

69 News wanted to get Kean's take on all of this, so we reached out to the campaign several times for an interview, but did not hear back.

His website says the Warren and Hunterdon County GOP committees are among those he's received endorsements from, though 69 News didn't hear back from them either.

"Republicans in New Jersey have to play this delicate dance," said Koning. "Republicanism in the state has typically been a game of moderation."

A possible strategy in that game: when you look at Kean's main campaign website, you don't see a mention of the former president.

"We discovered that he's got a second website that you can't link to from that public site,” said Malinowski.

There, you don’t see Trump’s name either, but a list of conservative priorities they share.

"It's all the stuff that he doesn't want most voters to see,” said Malinowski.

Experts agree securing votes from independents and moderates is key to winning District 7.

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