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A progressive activist, running in a moderate N.J. district, ignores usual playbook

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Among this year's most competitive House races is New Jersey's seventh district. Now, in the past six years, that seat has flipped from Republican to Democrat, and after redistricting, back to Republican. This time around, a Democratic candidate is taking a different approach. Here's Nancy Solomon from member station WNYC.

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UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTOR: I want to give a shout-out to OneNJ7.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTORS: (Cheering).

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTOR: New Jersey Citizen Action.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTORS: (Cheering).

NANCY SOLOMON, BYLINE: When Congressman Tom Kean Jr. held a campaign fundraiser in Springfield, N.J., with House Speaker Mike Johnson, a group of some 50 activists were there to protest outside.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTOR: Make the Road Action fund (ph) of New Jersey.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTORS: (Cheering).

SOLOMON: All of them are supporters, if not friends of Sue Altman, the Democratic challenger.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTOR: And it's my pleasure to bring up Sue Altman.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTORS: (Cheering).

SOLOMON: She's the former director of New Jersey Working Families Alliance, a part of a loose-knit coalition of progressive activists around the state.

SUE ALTMAN: Hello, NJ-7.

SOLOMON: Altman is an outspoken critic of the Democratic Party boss in South Jersey, George Norcross. She made headlines in 2019 when she was forcibly removed from a hearing at the state Capitol where he was about to speak. At the rally, Altman told NPR she doesn't think it's a problem that the Republican Party describes her as too liberal for this district.

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ALTMAN: I'm not sure the narrative right now is so much left, right or moderate, progressive. I actually think it's about bigger issues. It's about democracy and fighting for New Jersey. And so my entire career, I fought against both parties. I fought against corrupt Democrats, and I fought against people like Chris Christie who are cutting money to schools.

SOLOMON: It's a very different playbook from Democrats who successfully flipped Republican seats in the last few elections nationwide. In 2018, that included at least nine moderate Democrats with a military or intel background. But Mike Smith of the House Majority PAC, which works to get Democrats elected, says that while Altman is to the left of those candidates, she's able to connect with voters in a way that transcends party lines.

MIKE SMITH: And the typical attack of, you know, you're too progressive, you're too liberal actually really didn't resonate across the board. Sue doesn't come across as a typical politician. And we've seen the most successful candidates everywhere in the country - and that's from New York to California to Indiana to Illinois - the ones that don't fit a typical politician model are actually the ones that are most successful. And I think that's where Sue kind of fits.

SOLOMON: Smith says the House Majority PAC is putting resources into Altman's campaign because they believe it's a key district for Democrats to take control of the House. The district includes working-class small cities, affluent suburbs and a large rural area and has long been a bastion of moderate Republicanism. When Tom Kean Jr. won the seat two years ago, he told voters he would protect abortion rights.

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TOM KEAN JR: I support a woman's right to choose and have a 20-year career in the state legislature reflecting that fact.

SOLOMON: But since then, he's voted with his party to oppose abortion rights. In Kean's hometown of Westfield, I met a local teacher, Sandy Suarez, who says she hasn't decided who she'll vote for. But Suarez says she'll be paying attention to Kean's votes on reproductive rights.

SANDY SUAREZ: If you're a woman, you have the right to do what you want to do. So for - to see that a lot of men are the ones that are advocating for us, it's kind of, like, upsetting, 'cause they're not the ones that deal with what comes with being a woman.

SOLOMON: Kean won the last election by a slim margin. So far, Altman raised more money than Kean in the first quarter. If she can unseat him in November, it won't just be a significant victory in the fight for party control of the House. The conventional thinking about how Democrats can win in purple districts might just shift as well.

For NPR News, I'm Nancy Solomon in Maplewood, N.J.

(SOUNDBITE OF SAMBA TOURE'S "ALBALA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Nancy Solomon