The New Jersey Globe projects that former State Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr. (R-Westfield) has won the 7th congressional district, unseating Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-Ringoes) and flipping the district to Republicans.
Kean was regarded as the favorite from the very beginning of the campaign cycle, so the victory is not an unexpected one – but him winning means that Republicans are one seat closer to flipping the House.
Malinowski was elected to Congress in 2018, defeating Rep. Leonard Lance (R-Clinton) as part of the blue wave that saw Democrats pick up four of New Jersey’s 12 House districts.
After Malinowski won, Kean, a longtime state senator from Union County’s tony suburbs, suited up to challenge him in 2020; Malinowski won that first matchup by a surprisingly small 50.6%-49.4% margin. The closeness of his victory was in stark contrast to Joe Biden’s huge 10-point win in the district, and it established Malinowski as one of the nation’s most vulnerable House Democrats heading into 2022, especially once Kean announced his rematch campaign in the summer of 2021.
The new lines of the 7th district did Malinowski no favors, either. Democrats on the state’s Congressional Redistricting Commission shored up most Democratic incumbents, but in exchange they made Malinowski’s district significantly redder, adding new rural territory to the west and reducing Biden’s margin to around four points.
Malinowski also drew sustained attacks for a House Ethics Committee inquiry into his stock trading activity. Although the congressman’s late filings were first reported in spring of 2021, the committee still hadn’t issued a decision on the matter by Election Day, a limbo which allowed Republicans to bash him as a swamp creature for months on end.
Kean, meanwhile, has had a smoother campaign cycle, though he did have to win a contentious Republican primary to reach the general election. No fewer than six more conservative challengers filed to run against Kean in the primary, but with the support of every county party, he won with a solid 45% plurality (and his next-closest opponent, 2021 gubernatorial candidate Phil Rizzo, got just 23%).
Like many others around the country, the general election contest between the two Toms became something of a referendum on inflation and abortion, the two biggest issues of the 2022 cycle. Kean hit Malinowski again and again on the failure by Democrats to rein in the cost of living, while Malinowski tied Kean to the overturning of Roe v. Wade and national proposals to ban abortion.
More than $18 million was spent on the race in total, making it by far New Jersey’s most expensive contest.
Malinowski significantly outspent Kean, $6.9 million to $3.2 million, but outside Republican groups heavily engaged to make up the difference: Republican PACs spent more than $6 million, while Democratic PACs spent a comparatively small $2.1 million. The outside spending disparity was generally interpreted as a sign of skepticism among Democrats that Malinowski could win re-election.
Election forecasters concurred with that underconfidence; both the Cook Political Report and Sabato’s Crystal Ball rated the race as Leans Republican the entire cycle. So did the limited publicly available polling: Kean was up by eight points in a lone independent poll, and the race was tied in a series of Malinowski internal polls.
With Kean now headed to Congress in two months, the attention will turn to how he’ll acclimate to Washington – and whether he can hold his district in a less favorable cycle for his party. A self-professed moderate, Kean will likely work to distinguish himself from the Republican Party’s fringe, but there’s no doubt that the 7th district will continue to be competitive in the years to come.