Redistricting is not too far in the future – two years away from the count and three years from a new legislative map. After that comes new congressional districts. The last map was drawn to give each part six districts, but with the defeat of Scott Garrett in 2016, Democrats now have a 7-5 edge in the state’s house delegation.
New Jersey is not expected to lose any seats in the next census, but the map will clearly be influenced by the results of the 2018 mid-term elections. Some pundits say that if this is a wave election – wave elections are a lot like hurricanes: you may know they’re coming, but you can’t seethe full impact until it hits – Democrats could potentially hold all twelve New Jersey congressional seats. Potentially is the crucial word. Beating Chris Smith is tough.
If Josh Gottheimer gets re-elected and Republicans hold Rodney Frelinghuysen’s seat, there might be an easy trade: Gottheimer would likely prefer to unload the Sussex and Warren part of his district – where the kind of voters who could someday endanger his seat live. A Republican congressman would probably like to unburden himself of the Essex part of the district – especially Montclair. It becomes a three-way trade, with Gottheimer adding some of the old Steve Rothman towns, and Bill Pascrell returning to parts of Essex County.
But if Democrats win the open 11th district seat, it makes the transaction a little more awkward. Mikie Sherrill or Tamara Harris, if they survive a 2020 re-election, would land-lock Gottheimer into keeping towns he doesn’t want. He won’t take on Pascrell, who will be 85 in 2022 and ought never, ever be counted out. And he can’t impede on Albio Sires’ district. Sires and Donald Payne are untouchable in redistricting.
More directly, a Democratic pickup of the Frelinghuysen seat is Gottheimer’s worst nightmare.
Morris County has taken much pride in having a congressional seat; Dean Gallo and Rodney Frelinghuysen fought hard to keep the 39 towns intact after the 1990 and 2000 census. Frelinghuysen was pushed to give up some Republican towns in Morris in exchange for some Democratic areas of Essex – a key reason why he’s retiring after just two years as chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.
The candidacy of newcomer Antony Ghee for the GOP congressional nomination opens a fascinating door to redistricting. If Ghee were to become New Jersey’s first African-American Republican congressman, the independent, tie-breaking member of the congressional redistricting commission would be hard-pressed to put him in danger of losing. The tiebreaker would surely not force an incumbent vs. incumbent race between a black Republican and Gottheimer or Pascrell.
In a peculiar sort of way, a guy who has been a Republican for less than two weeks could assure the GOP a hold on the 11th district seat through 2032. Ghee could be the best bet to create a solid Republican Morris-Sussex-Warren seat.
Another variable in redistricting is Republican Leonard Lance’s 7th district seat. It’s hard to imagine a scenario by which Lance loses, but Ghee or Jay Webber win. But if Lance wins and Democrats pick up the 11th, it opens the possibility of an Essex Democratic congresswoman trading Morris and Sussex to Lance for his Union County towns.
If Lance loses, all bets are off for a group of would-be freshman Democrats. It is, as they say, mathematically impossible to draw seven safe Democratic congressional seats north of I-195.
Like Gottheimer, Lance is a bit landlocked too. He doesn’t want to go east, or south – not a possibility, since Democrat Bonnie Watson Coleman’s 12th district will get also be protected. Lance doesn’t want Middlesex County anyway.
If Democrats win the Frelinghuysen district, Gottheimer needs to pray that Lance gets unseated too. That’s an entirely brand-new issue for them to address at their next Problem Solver caucus.