When Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-Ringoes) conceded the 7th congressional district race to Rep.-elect Tom Kean Jr. (R-Westfield) two weeks ago, he identified a clear culprit for his loss: New Jersey’s new congressional map.
“While we did as well or better than in 2020 in the communities I have represented these last four years, and I expect the results to tighten further as all votes are counted, the new district proved too much of a hurdle to overcome,” Malinowski said in his concession on November 9. (He ultimately lost by three points.)
On election night, Malinowski was even more explicit: “There is no question that we would be winning hands down in the original district.”
Indeed, the congressional lines drawn by Democrats on the Congressional Redistricting Commission were the biggest impediment to Malinowski winning a third term in office. In order to shore up other Democratic House members, the 7th district was saddled with loads of additional Republican-leaning territory, deflating President Joe Biden’s margin in the district from 10 points down to just four.
But is Malinowski correct in saying that he would have won if his district had stayed the same?
Though there’s no way to know for certain, by comparing Malinowski’s town-level performances in 2020 and 2022 (using detailed data that was only recently made available), it’s possible to make a conjecture. And according to that conjecture, the answer is yes: Malinowski would have won re-election under New Jersey’s old district lines.
Two years ago, when Kean first took on Malinowski, the race for the 7th district was the closest in New Jersey; Malinowski’s 50.6%-49.4% win was a nine-point underperformance of Biden. This year, Kean won 51.5%-48.5%.
It’s not possible to directly compare those two results, since the district was redrawn. But 62 towns, or around two-thirds of the district’s population, were fully in both the old district and the new one, and it is possible to compare the results in those towns specifically.
In 2020, while losing overall by 1.2 points, Kean won that set of towns by 5.3 points.
This year, however, Kean won those same towns by a 2.9-point margin, more than two points worse than he did in 2020. Had the 7th district remained the same, that would have translated to a healthy 3.6-point Malinowski victory.
Technically, it’s possible that Malinowski could have specifically underperformed in the towns that were removed from the district, but there’s no reason to believe that would be the case.
In other words, Malinowski matched or exceeded the numbers he needed to get to win in the old 7th district, and what sunk him were the changes made by members of his own party on the redistricting commission.
Given the big wins by next-door Reps. Josh Gottheimer (D-Wyckoff) and Mikie Sherrill (D-Montclair) in districts the commission made bluer, there has been some heartburn among Democrats that Malinowski’s sacrifice was for nothing.
If the 7th district had remained approximately the same and solidly Republican Warren and Sussex Counties were put in the 5th and 11th districts instead, Malinowski may have been favored to win. Since Democrats won the 5th district by 10 points and the 11th district by 19, such a shift would not have imperiled the incumbents there, either.
And a change like that would have had ripple effects on the race as a whole. If Malinowski had run in a more favorable district, national Democratic groups probably would have seen his race as more worthy of investment; from the beginning, the redder district lines set in place a narrative that Malinowski was going to lose, and the congressman was never fully able to convince his party otherwise.
(One caveat is that a map that protected all vulnerable Democratic incumbents might not have passed muster with redistricting commission tiebreaker John Wallace, who seemed to favor Democrats but may have balked at an overly gerrymandered map.)
Regardless, the hypotheticals didn’t happen. What did happen is that the congressional map was approved, Malinowski lost, and Kean is a congressman-elect. Not just that: Kean performed around seven points better than Donald Trump did two years ago, one of the biggest overperformances in the state.
But Kean will not have an easy time holding the 7th district in future years, even with its new, more Republican lines.
At the core of the 7th district are well-off suburbs that began to sprint away from Republicans in the Trump era. And it was in those suburbs that Malinowski did best relative to 2020, indicating that Kean can’t necessarily count on ancestral Republicans splitting their tickets for him.
Malinowski did between four and eight points better than 2020 in Berkeley Heights, Mountainside, New Providence, Springfield, and Summit, five Union County suburbs Kean used to represent in the state legislature. In Westfield, Kean’s hometown, Malinowski did an astonishing 12 points better than in 2020, winning by 28 points.
Malinowski and frustrated Democrats will likely spend the next two years ruing the redistricting commission’s decision to make the 7th district more Republican, asserting that it was the deciding factor in Malinowski’s loss.
And they’ll be right. There’s no way to interpret the town-level data in a way that doesn’t indicate a probable Malinowski win in the old 7th district. That doesn’t diminish Kean’s win, but it does mean he won’t be able to rest easy for the next two years; the 7th district has many more slugfests to come.