Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-Ringoes) will begin his second term in the House as New Jersey’s most vulnerable Democrat after winning a second term against Republican Tom Kean, Jr. by just a little more than one percent in New Jersey’s second district.
While the election – save a possible recount – is over, neither candidate will get much of a respite.
Malinowski will need to get a jump on replenishing his campaign warchest and faces the uncertainties surrounding congressional redistricting, a process that begins next July when the New Jersey Redistricting Commission members are appointed.
The 51-year-old Kean must decide if he wants a rematch in 2022, when Donald Trump is not on the ballot, or if he’s prepared to finish his career in the state legislature. That likely means not seeking re-election to the State Senate in 2021.
Kean’s 21st legislative district seat leans Republican, but it’s no slam-dunk. And Democrats won’t give him a free pass. Running for both State Senate and Congress semi-simultaneously is dangerous.
There’s a risk involved her, since he would need to make his choice without knowing exactly what a redrawn 7th would like.
Some of that gamble is stacked in Kean’s favor. As Senate Minority Leader, Kean gets two direct appointments to the congressional redistricting commission. His two appointees would assuredly be focused on NJ-7 and improving Kean’s terrain.
The other four GOP commissioners will also be picked by 7th district residents: Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick (R-Westfield) and Republican State Chairman Doug Steinhardt, a former Lopatcong mayor.
Bramnick has some skin in the game.
If Kean doesn’t run for re-election, Bramnick would then have to decide whether he wants to run for Governor or take the safer option of running for the State Senate.
The amateur analysis here – a more learned one must wait for complete results, town-by-town data, and a detailed look at voter turnout – is that Kean would be formidable in the current district in Joe Biden’s mid-term when candidates for Congress head the ticket.
The question for Republicans is whether they can improve Kean’s chances by – and this is about as simplistic as it comes – replacing some Democratic towns with some Republican ones.
Malinowski’s win complicates the new map for two other Democrats, Josh Gottheimer (D-Wyckoff) and Mikie Sherrill (D-Montclair).
Both were solidly behind Malinowski, but would have found Kean eager to pick up Republicans parts of their own districts that they would probably prefer to shed before the 2022 mid-terms.
After beating Kean in 2020 and five-term Rep. Leonard Lance (R-Clinton Township) in 2018, Malinowski has shown strong vote-getting and fundraising skills.
But his district still lacks a Democratic stronghold. Phillipsburg is the major urban center of the 7th; while Malinowski might hope to add someplace like Plainfield, that’s not something Republicans will easily agree to.
A bigger statewide picture
The next step for Malinowski is to find a political rabbi to advocate for him from inside the congressional redistricting process. The Democratic State Chairman, the Senate President and the Assembly Speaker pick the Democratic cartographers.
One reality of congressional redistricting is that it can go one of two ways: either Democrats and Republicans make a deal, or the decision goes to a tie-breaker.
Realistically, a tie-breaker is unlikely to look at the current New Jersey congressional delegation and agree that Democrats should expand their map to eleven or twelve seats.
That offers some protection to the two Republicans: incoming sophomore party-switcher Jeff Van Drew (R-Dennis) and Christopher Smith (R-Hamilton), who recently romped to a 21st term in Congress.
There are some realities to the drawing of the new map.
Albio Sires (D-West New York) is the lone Latino member of the New Jersey delegation, and Donald Payne, Jr. (D-Newark) and Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-Ewing) are the only Black members. In addition to Voting Rights Act issues, a tie-breaker is not going to approve a district that might cause those seats to go Republican even if it were mathematically possible.
The 3rd district, which convincingly re-elected Democrat Andy Kim this month, is still a swing district.
Kim is going to want to shed a little Ocean – Smith might be willing to take everything Kim doesn’t want – and pick up some Camden, maybe Cherry Hill, which Republicans took out of the district in 2011 to shore up Jon Runyan (R-Moorestown).
Democrats might also want to make an ethnic pitch to a tie-breaker: that New Jersey ought not to cast aside the state’s line Asian American congressman.
It’s possible that Kim could replace some staunchly Republican towns in Ocean by traveling north from Burlington through at least part of Hamilton and picking up Democratic municipalities with growing Asian American communities: West Windsor and East Windsor in Mercer County, and South Brunswick and other parts of Middlesex.
A north-south district is not unusual: the 12th legislative district runs from Middlesex to Burlington and Ocean, and Smith’s 4th district map in 1982 went from South Brunswick to Pennsauken.
Mikie, Tom and Pascheimer
Questions about the map always come back to discussions of the 5th, 7th and 11th districts.
Some pundits who have been around redistricting issues for years agree that Democrats can make a strong gender argument in advocating for Sherrill, hoping that a potential tie-breaker won’t want responsibility for reducing New Jersey’s House delegation from 10 men and two women to 11-1.
Sherrill’s 53%-47% re-election wasn’t exactly a blowout, partly because the 11th is still Republican and because she chose to bank some money for a rainy day – maybe in a new district – and not try to run up the score against Rosemary Becchi.
But the 2020 results – 62% in Essex, 52% in Morris, 58% in Passaic and 44% in Sussex – show that the rising Democratic star needs to exchange some heavily Republican areas in Sussex for some better Democratic territory.
Bill Pascrell (D-Paterson) has told the New Jersey Globe in the past that there isn’t a town in Passaic County that he wouldn’t want. Pascrell, 83, might be looking at some succession planning so that his seat remains in the hands of a Passaic County Democrat.
Gottheimer, who won by a wider margin than Sherrill, also sees the Republican base in the 5th district. He won 48% in Bergen, 42% in Passaic, 39% in Sussex and 41% in Warren for a 53%-44% overall win.
It’s possible that Gottheimer would appreciate Pascrell taking on his Passaic areas – towns that don’t scare him at all. That still leaves him with the Warren and Sussex portions that make up about 25% of his district.
Instead, Gottheimer would clearly prefer more of Bergen County, like Fort Lee, Englewood and the rest of Teaneck. South Bergen towns now represented by Pascrell are dominated by moderate Democrats – they used to be described as Reagan Democrats – and might insulate Gottheimer from another progressive primary challenge.
Sherrill doesn’t want Warren and Sussex; indeed, she can’t absorb them and necessarily keep her seat. And western New Jersey can’t become party of Pennsylvania.
The congresswoman also has some advocates: the current Democratic State Chairman, John Currie, Democratic State Committee executive director Saily Avelenda, and the incoming state party chairman, Essex County Democratic Chairman LeRoy Jones.
This brings the circle back to Malinowski, Kean and the 7th. Malinowski for sure doesn’t want more of Warren, more of Morris and any part of Sussex. But Kean does.
Unless there is a deal map where Democrats agree to sacrifice one Democrat – or more — to protect the rest, it will be up to a tie-breaker to determine if he or she thinks New Jersey is blue enough to accommodate a 10-2 map.
The strongest possible challengers in contested congressional races are typically unknowns, especially this early.
On election night 2014, when Scott Garrett (R-Wantage) was re-elected to a seventh term, it’s likely that he had never heard of Gottheimer, a former Clinton administration speechwriter and Microsoft executive with substantial national contacts.
Two years later, when Tom MacArthur (R-Toms River), Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-Harding) and Lance were re-elected, they probably didn’t know who Kim, Sherrill and Malinowski were.
So it’s not clear what the map will look like or who the candidates are.
New Jersey Republicans and the National Republican Congressional Committee have no more than seven months to identify their candidates before it becomes too late to raise the money they need.
Gottheimer, Kim, Sherrill and Malinowski started early and exceeded fundraising expectations.