A district won narrowly by Joe Biden that had voted for Donald Trump in 2016. A top-tier Republican recruit with strong local connections and a history of running statewide. A Democratic campaign focused on abortion contrasting with a Republican campaign hammering on inflation.
That was the story of the special election last week in New York’s 19th district, which was narrowly – and unexpectedly – won by Democrat Pat Ryan. But it also describes the ongoing campaign in New Jersey’s 7th congressional district, where Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-Ringoes) faces a rematch with former State Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr. (R-Westfield) in what’s looking like New Jersey’s marquee 2022 race.
Ever since the 7th district was redrawn late last year, making it substantially more Republican, Malinowski has been widely considered the underdog for re-election. Kean nearly beat Malinowski in 2020 in a bluer constituency, and Biden’s unpopularity seemed to presage a Republican-friendly midterm environment.
But in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision overturning the constitutional right to abortion, Democrats seem to have rebounded to some extent, drawing even in generic ballot polling and overperforming in special elections like the one in New York. Malinowski, who has made abortion a cornerstone issue of his campaign, perhaps isn’t dead in the water after all.
The final result, of course, won’t be known for several months, and between now and then, all sorts of factors could dramatically swing the race in one direction or another. But it is possible to forecast what could happen under different scenarios; here’s a look at three different possibilities.
A standard Kean win
The simplest explanation for why Kean is still considered a favorite to win is that, if the 2020 election were held under the 7th district’s new lines, Kean would likely be a congressman already.
Under last decade’s district lines, Biden won the 7th district by around 10 points, a significant win in an ancestrally Republican district that had sent Rep. Leonard Lance (R-Clinton) to Congress as recently as 2016. (Malinowski beat him in 2018).
But Kean, harnessing Republican strength downballot and his own pre-existing support in the Union County portion of the district, held Malinowski to just a one-point win, 50.6%-49.4%. Case in point is Westfield, Kean’s hometown; Biden won it by 33 points, but it went for Malinowski by only 16.
Given that generic ballot polling and special elections seem to indicate a somewhat neutral political environment this year, repeating 2020’s congressional results would be something of an expected result in 2022. Unluckily for Malinowski, that would likely mean he’s out of a job, since his new district is significantly more Republican than the one he’s won twice before.
Biden won the new 7th district by 3.6 points, and while it’s impossible to know exactly how a Kean-Malinowski matchup would have looked, it is possible to guess.
Simulating a hypothetical 2020 election, accomplished by projecting about how new towns might have voted based on how existing towns did vote, produces a four-point Kean win. This scenario, which is once again entirely hypothetical, provides something of a baseline for Kean and Malinowski in 2022.
In the 12 former 7th district towns that were partially or completely removed on the new map, Malinowski had won by a huge 21,000-vote margin, 60-40%. But in the 31 towns that replaced them, Kean would have (hypothetically) won by an estimated 4,000 votes, 52-48%. Redistricting completely wiped out a huge Malinowski vote buffer.
Kean would win five out of six counties in the new district, while Union County, the district’s one Democratic hub, would go for Malinowski. The 12 Union County towns that are at least partially in the 7th district make up the largest share of votes in the district, but they’re still less than a quarter of the total, and get drowned out by big Republican margins in Warren and Sussex Counties.
There are a number of other factors working in Kean’s factor this year beyond geography. For one, Malinowski is under inquiry by the House Ethics Committee for his late disclosures of a large number of stock trades, an easy attack line for Kean and national Republicans. For another, Kean doesn’t have to share the ballot this time with Donald Trump, a deeply polarizing figure in the affluent suburbs of North Jersey.
“Biden is not at his 2020 approval level,” said Micah Rasmussen, the director of the Rebovich Institute of New Jersey Politics at Rider University. “And Donald Trump is not the opponent on the ballot. You don’t have as popular a candidate, and you don’t have as unpopular an opponent.”
There have been two publicly released polls of the district that also seem to point towards a Kean win: a Democratic internal that showed a tied race, and an independent poll that gave Kean an eight-point lead.
In other words, if the election this November produces a modest Kean victory – one that looks something like the hypothetical result outlined above – it would be an unsurprising outcome, and one that points towards a relatively neutral political environment overall. But Malinowski could still win – so what might that look like?
A Malinowski squeaker
When Joe Biden carried the new iteration of the 7th district in 2020, he was probably the first Democratic presidential candidate to do so since Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1964 landslide. Even in years like 1996, when most of New Jersey went Democratic, the counties that make up the 7th district remained staunchly Republican.
Biden’s win was impressive, and it’s also instructive for how a Democrat might win the district. Biden was strong in Union County, winning the parts of it in the 7th district by 25 points, while also carrying Somerset County and keeping things close in Morris and Hunterdon Counties.
For Malinowski to win, all he has to do is match the numbers that Biden has already proven a Democrat can achieve. That’s easier said than done, though, given that many suburban voters already split their tickets for Biden and Kean once and may do so once more.
Should Kean does do well in the Democratic suburbs again, Malinowski has to make inroads somewhere else.
That could mean convincing voters in the new parts of the district, who have fewer existing relationships with him or Kean, that he’s the better choice. For example, there will probably be 25,000 to 30,000 Sussex County voters this November who have never voted in the 7th district before; Malinowski won’t win them, but if he overperforms, that could go a long way.
It could also mean simply getting more of his supporters to the polls, something made easier by the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision. In the New York special election earlier this week, the district’s two Democratic-leaning counties both made up a larger share of the district’s overall vote than they did in 2020, powering the Democratic victory.
Should, when all is said and done, Malinowski does manage to pull out a win, Rasmussen said it would indicate that Kean counted too much on 2022 being a Republican wave year and not enough on countering Democratic attacks on abortion or giving his own voters something to rally around.
“It would tell me that Kean miscalculated the enthusiasm of Republican voters for him,” Rasmussen said. “He’s the top of the ticket. In the absence of some draw above him, he was not enough of a motivation to come out and support on his own. He misjudged the generic level of anger at Democrats.”
A Kean blowout
On the other side of the ledger, there’s the possibility of a total wipeout that sees Kean win by 10 points or more. That may seem extreme in a Biden-won district, but one Republican already managed to accomplish it recently: 2021 gubernatorial nominee Jack Ciattarelli.
In his unexpectedly tight battle with Gov. Phil Murphy last year, Ciattarelli dominated in the new 7th district, winning it by more than 12 points. Outside of Union County and a few scattered towns elsewhere, Ciattarelli swept the entire district.
A big factor in explaining how Ciattarelli came so close to defeating Murphy was his careful threading of the needle between suburban moderate and Trump-aligned conservative. The 7th district, where Ciattarelli dramatically overperformed in the suburbs while also scoring huge margins in staunchly Republican Sussex County, is a microcosm of the statewide race.
In Malinowski’s nightmare scenario, the same thing happens in his election. Kean fits a relatively similar profile as Ciattarelli: a moderate former state legislator from the suburbs who isn’t completely distrusted by the conservative wing of the Republican Party.
If Kean is able to motivate voters the same way Ciattarelli did, and if Republicans do in fact turn 2022 into a wave election, then a blowout victory is very much on the table. Kean is leaning heavily on messaging around inflation, and Republicans could dominate among voters who decide that the price of groceries and gas is their key issue.
A huge Kean victory would have the added bonus of intimidating Democrats looking to beat him in future years. Given the 7th district’s Democratic trend, it’s hard to imagine Congressman Kean ever getting re-elected without sweating for it, but a blowout this year would at least serve as a warning to Democrats going forward.
What will the result ultimately be this November? It’s tough to say.
As Rasmussen noted, neither Kean nor Malinowski are running campaigns that clearly distinguish themselves from their party; the messaging from both campaigns has been largely tied to Democrats’ failures and successes over the last two years.
“They both seem to be doing their damnedest to get us down to [a generic battle],” Rasmussen said. “Malinowski’s running on the most popular parts of the Democratic agenda from the last two years, and Kean is running as an indictment on the Democratic agenda from the last two years.”
For most of this cycle, the conventional wisdom has been that a generic fight would favor Republicans, given Biden’s unpopularity and external factors like inflation. But it’s not clear that’s true anymore, and for the nearly 800,000 residents of the 7th district, that means it will be a busy fall. Buckle up.