With municipal-level 2020 Census data released last week and redistricting on the horizon, it’s the time of the cycle when legislators around the country begin to fret that their districts will be radically changed or dismantled.
And in New Jersey, where five out of 12 congressional districts are currently highly competitive, the stakes are high – especially for Tom Malinowski (D-Ringoes) of the 7th congressional district.
If it existed in a vacuum, the 7th district wouldn’t need to change very much. It only needs to add around 14,000 people, a task easily accomplished by taking one or two towns, or part of a town, from a neighboring district.
But redistricting is rarely so simple, and redrawn lines in other districts will inevitably rebound onto the 7th. A district as hotly contested as the 7th – where Malinowski is facing a rematch with Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean, Jr. (R-Westfield), whom he narrowly beat in 2020 – may face big implications even from small changes.
Presented here are three possible paths that redistricting in the 7th district might take: one that largely maintains the current lines, and two that would each substantially benefit one party or the other. With just minor tinkering, the mid-term elections could mean lights out for either Malinowski or Kean.
The status quo
Since the current district is underpopulated by around 14,000 people, it theoretically needs only small additions to make up the remainder.
One such possibility is the Somerset County borough of politically competitive Bound Brook (pop. 11,988), currently located in the 12th district. Geographically, Bound Brook would be a logical municipality for the 7th district to add, since it already includes most of Somerset County anyways.
This option would also be ideal for the 12th district, which is overpopulated by around 12,000 people. By trading a town like Bound Brook, both districts can stabilize at very near to the ideal district size.
Under this proposal, the partisanship of the 7th district would hardly change – Clinton would still win it by a little over a point, and Biden by around 10 points. It would thus likely remain among the country’s top battleground districts in 2022.
Also possible would be for the 7th district to take more of Scotch Plains from the 12th district, or to take part of Randolph Township from the 11th district. In each case, the overall partisan makeup of the district would be only marginally impacted.
But while simply shifting Bound Brook or another municipality might be ideal for the 7th district, other districts around the state are confronted with far greater population differentials, which will have ripple effects on districts like the 7th. A map that leaves it so untouched, therefore, seems unlikely.
The strong arm
Both of the state’s two most overpopulated districts, the 8th (Rep. Albio Sires) and the 10th (Rep. Donald Payne, Jr.), are located near the 7th district’s eastern edge, which comes to a halt in Union and Essex Counties. The 7th district’s eastern “arm” to pick up heavily-Democratic South Orange and Maplewood from the 10th district, relieving the population pressure on that district and on urban North Jersey more generally.
As a tradeoff, the 7th district could relinquish two municipalities from its suburban western portion that are hugely Republican – Morris County’s Mount Olive Township and Warren County’s Harmony Township — maybe for the 5th (Rep. Josh Gottheimer) or 11th (Rep. Mikie Sherrill) districts to incorporate.
The district’s eastern arm would make up a larger portion of the district overall, pushing it significantly bluer.
Clinton would have won this 7th district by around 7 points instead of just over one point, with Biden’s margin still higher. And Malinowski would be under significantly less threat from Kean in 2022, if Kean continued running at all.
The western reserve
On the other hand, other districts like the 5th and 11th could shift to account for the 8th and 10th districts’ overpopulation, in which case the 7th district might be forced to incorporate some of their western territory.
The remainder of strongly Republican Warren County currently in the 5th district – Gottheimer won only 41% of the vote in these municipalities in 2020 – could move into the 7th district. In exchange, the 7th district’s eastern arm could shed Milburn and its portion Union Township, both heavily Democratic.
With more territory in the west and less of a cushion in the east, the district would have been won by Trump by a little under 4 points in 2016 before narrowly flipping to Biden. Such a tradeoff would likely have meant a Kean victory in 2020, and would bode well for him in 2022.
However, while this particular map is careful to maintain Kean’s hometown of Westfield in the district’s eastern periphery, there is no guarantee mapmakers would do the same. Kean could, ironically, find himself running in a redder district in 2022, but one that he no longer lives in.
It is possible – in fact, probable – that the ultimate district map will look nothing like the three options drawn here. All hypothetical districts, particularly those drawn without careful consideration of how they would affect others around them, can only be proposals, not predictions.
Instead, the lesson here is just how much the battle for New Jersey’s congressional districts, and for the House at-large, is predicated on redistricting. Depending on how the lines are drawn, the matchup between Malinowski and Kean could be one of the country’s most fiercely contested races –
– or it could be over before it’s even begun.