Tom Malinowski spent four years in Congress in an election that at least at one point was decided by just one vote.
When Hugh Sinclair walked into the Union County Democratic screening committee in March 2018, Malinowski and Linda Weber each had six votes.
Sinclair, the Democratic chairman in Garwood (pop. 4,255) and the lone uncommitted voter in the room, was to be the decider.
At that moment, the race for the Democratic nomination for Congress in New Jersey’s 7th district was up in the air as Democrats battled to pick a challenger for five-term Rep. Leonard Lance (R-Clinton), a moderate Republican who would become a casualty of Donald Trump’s mid-term election.
Malinowski became a first-time candidate in October 2017 in a field that would eventually swell to seven contenders: Weber, a bank executive; 2016 challenger Peter Jacob; environmental activist David Pringle; and newcomers Scott Salmon, Lisa Mandelblatt, and Goutam Jois.
After scoring convention wins in Hunterdon, Morris, and Warren counties, Malinowski had won organization lines. Webber had the line in Somerset and Essex.
Union County was a must-win for both candidates. The day before the vote, Emily’s List announced that it would endorse Weber if she won the Union County line.
The line in Union was awarded by a vote of the thirteen municipal chairs, where towns had the same weight regardless of population. Malinowski had Berkeley Heights, Cranford, Kenilworth, New Providence, Scotch Plains, and Westfield. Weber’s votes came from Clark, Mountainside, Springfield, Summit, Union, and Winfield.
Sinclair voted for Malinowski, giving the former assistant U.S. Secretary of State the Union County line by a razor-thin 7-6 vote.
Webber dropped out after losing Union and Malinowski picked up the lines in Somerset and Essex.
Union had 29% of the Democratic primary voters in the 7th, and Somerset was 25%. Hunterdon (19%), Morris (13%), Warren (9%), and Essex (5%) made up the rest.
Had Sinclair voted for Weber, it might have altered the entire landscape of the 2018 campaign.
Malinowski would have gone into the Democratic primary with his chief rival on the line in the counties that produced 54% of the vote.
He would have been forced to spend money on the primary, and even if he had won, he would have lost three months of fundraising as the presumed Democratic nominee.
It’s possible – no one will ever know – that a bitter, expensive Democratic primary would have helped Lance eke out a win in the general election. Some of the Democrats would not have posted the threat that Malinowski became.
Instead, Sinclair cleared the field for Malinowski and set up a path that allowed the Democrat to win 75% in the Democratic primary and beat Lance by 16,400 votes in November.