Election day is less than 30 days away and Split Ticket has already published its second-to-last House Temperature Check. With the November picture becoming clearer each day, time is running out to cover some of the nation’s most competitive districts individually.
The last edition of District Rundown analyzed why Ohio’s 9th district is staying a TOSSUP for now. This week’s release will touch on New Jersey’s 7th district in an attempt to determine just how likely the GOP is to win one of its top targets.
On paper, New Jersey’s 7th (Biden +3.6) district is a Democratic-trending Biden seat that was made redder in redistricting. But there’s more under the hood of this well-educated, suburban district than meets the eye. Let’s start with its geography, which is actually quite similar to that of its predecessor.
The Garden State’s latest congressional map shored up vulnerable Democratic incumbents Mikie Sherrill, Josh Gottheimer, and Andy Kim in exchange for making fellow Democrat Tom Malinowski’s life harder. How much harder exactly? The two-term Congressman currently represents a Biden +10 seat, but must now contest one that is only about Biden +4.
Those changes in presidential lean are the result of a continuing phenomenon over the history of the 7th district, which was originally based exclusively in Union County: moving west. This iteration of the seat is the most expansive yet, sucking in the remainder of Warren County and the southern half of Sussex. Those territorial tradeoffs harmed Republican chances in Gottheimer’s 5th but raised the party’s floor in the 7th.
The other significant change in New Jersey’s most competitive congressional district is a bit difficult to understand. Even though the 7th’s baseline partisanship got more Republican in redistricting, its down ballot lean toward the GOP shrank. That could have a deleterious effect on the district’s tendency to split tickets for moderate Republicans running at the local and congressional levels.
This change is clearly articulated by estimates of how the 2020 congressional race would have gone had it been held under the redrawn lines. While the Republican nominee, Tom Kean Jr., would have performed better in the new seat than in the old one, most observers would probably have expected him to win the novel iteration of the 7th by more than the map above depicts.
While Malinowski’s 49.1% is slightly-overestimated due both to the Hillsborough Township split and Gottheimer-Trump voters in Warren and Sussex counties, Kean still would have exceeded his actual 2020 performance by only a hair even though redistricting as a whole moved the presidential margin about 6 points rightward.
How is this possible? As discussed in detail below, some of the bluest municipalities in the old district were most prone to splitting their tickets for Biden and Kean. Two excellent examples are Millburn (Essex County) and Montgomery (Somerset County).
Both are solidly-Democratic, but there was a visible delta between their presidential and congressional margins in 2020. Removing them therefore made the 7th redder overall but less Republican down ballot.
That does not mean GOP candidates cannot carry the new seat comfortably, though. Amid an atrocious political environment that saw assembly Republicans win the statewide popular vote and Governor Phil Murphy reelected by a closer-than-expected margin, GOP nominee Jack Ciattarelli would have won the redrawn 7th district by double-digits, benefitting heavily from down ballot Republican strength.
Perhaps ominously for Republican chances here over the next decade, though, Somerset and Hunterdon counties both trended left from 2017, when Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno was blown out in her attempt to succeed unpopular incumbent Chris Christie.
Source: Dave’s Redistricting App
While the new 7th district relies more on mostly-Republican territory in Sussex and Warren counties than its predecessor, the majority of its population (63%) still lives in Union, Somerset, and Morris counties. Those portions of the seat, for reference, would have backed Biden 56-43%, more than triple the whole 7th’s lean.
Union and Somerset collectively form the heart of North Jersey’s traditional Republican base. Up until 2021, when Tom Kean Jr. retired from the Senate to pursue a second congressional bid, the entire legislative Republican leadership hailed from the 21st district outlined in the map below from election analyst Ethan Chen.
Source: Ethan Chen (@ECaliberSeven)
Running in 2020, Kean’s moderate campaign focused on fighting COVID-19 and ensuring economic recovery. His tone, coupled with a two-decade state senate tenure, allowed him to outrun President Trump in this section of the district. All told, Kean came within roughly a single point of winning a reliable Biden district.
The post-redistricting path to Republican victory in the 7th still relies on attracting these crossover voters in Somerset and Union. Strong GOP turnout out west, particularly in Hunterdon County, is also important, but comparatively less so. Conventional wisdom would suggest, then, that running to the center is essential to appealing to the persuadable suburban voters who are set to tip the scales in the 7th.
The Democratic candidate in the 7th district is incumbent Congressman Tom Malinowski. Originally a Polish immigrant, Malinowski grew up in New Jersey and eventually studied at Oxford. His pre-congressional career was spent in Washington’s foreign policy circles, eventually leading Malinowski to a role in President Obama’s state department. In 2018, he capitalized on a burgeoning blue wave, and suburban discontent with President Trump, to oust moderate Republican Congressman Leonard Lance.
Malinowski’s Republican opponent, Tom Kean Jr., is one of the most well-known state-level politicians in Somerset and Union counties. Kean is the scion of a long-time Garden State political family most recently recognized for producing the beloved Tom Kean Sr., Governor from 1982-1990. The younger Kean, educated at Dartmouth, has served in both chambers of the legislature and eventually become minority leader of the state senate. He narrowly lost a bid to Malinowski in 2020 and has since retired from the Senate to challenge the incumbent again.
The latest public polling in the 7th district has suggested a close race in which Kean has a slight advantage. RMG research published a post-Dobbs July poll that showed Malinowski down 46-38 with a majority of the district disapproving of President Biden. More recently, and perhaps also more accurately, Malinowski’s campaign released an internal showing a 48-48 tie with Kean.
While it is never a good sign when a candidate is not explicitly ahead in his or her own internal, the Democratic survey does suggest that a significant amount of undecideds could start to break for Malinowski. Such a phenomenon probably would not be enough to stop Kean, but it could limit the scope of his victory by a few points.
Split Ticket will be on the look out for more independent polling of the 7th district, especially numbers compiled after the upcoming NJ Globe debate between the two candidates.
Compared to a district like Ohio’s 9th, where one candidate has a definite fundraising advantage over the other, the positioning in the 7th is relatively balanced. To be sure, Malinowski has outraised his opponent roughly 2:1 and enjoys a cash on hand advantage of about $3 million dollars, but Kean still has enough money in the bank to be competitive. Both contenders have spent roughly $1.5 million each, somewhat equalizing the fight over the airwaves in the expensive New York media market.
Fluctuations in levels of spending from national Democrats and Republicans are also important, often showing exactly where parties are interested in spending and how confident they are in victory. According to the latest data compiled by Rob Pyers, outside Republican groups outspent their counterparts by almost $1 million in the 7th district, suggesting that Democrats are still bearish about their chances against Kean despite Malinowski’s stubborn persistence on the campaign trail.
If nothing changes over the next month when it comes to outside spending, it would be another sign that Democrats are prepared to unwisely cede the 7th in order to divert limited resources elsewhere.
This cycle’s campaign for the 7th district has so far deviated sharply from 2020’s contest. Most of the change started in the late spring, when Tom Kean deviated from his moderate brand to lock down a primary that he probably would have won anyway. Kean has since struggled to shift the public’s perspective back to his strong senate record, with Malinowski’s campaign repeatedly-attacking him over a now infamous primary flyer claiming that Kean “always has Trump’s back”.
In many way’s Kean’s inability to clearly address the abortion issue has made his problems worse post-Dobbs. Despite his pro-choice legislative record, Malinowski has portrayed Kean as a pro-life extremist based on a website published during the GOP primary campaign.
Kean has wisely pivoted to discussing economic issues, namely inflation, that resonate throughout the wealthy 7th district, but it is unclear just how much his reputation has been permanently-damaged by fabricated connections with Trump.
Excepting his late “momentum”, Malinowski has certainly had problems of his own. Over the last year, his record has been marred by allegations of insider trading made during the pandemic. Kean has not used the House Ethics Committee’s investigation attack line as much as outside observers expected.
BENCHMARKS AND EXPECTATIONS
For Kean to defeat Malinowski, he would need to generate at least *most* of the crossover support that he did in 2020. Strong Republican turnout in Sussex, Warren, and Hunterdon is simply not enough to sway the entire district if the floor falls out in the east. Assuming he wins the Somerset portion of the seat and hits his old benchmarks in Union, Kean would be on track for a modest victory.
The biggest question is of course whether Split Ticket expects Kean to retain the majority of his traditional crossover appeal with Democrats and independents despite the self-inflicted damage done to his image over the last few months. While few foresee Kean garnering the levels of crossover support that he did in 2020, most concede that one election cycle is probably not enough to destroy constituent connections built over the course of two decades in the Senate.
That is why we expect Kean to underwhelm expectations in the 7th district while flipping it into the GOP column. The LEANS REPUBLICAN rating will hold until election day, barring anything unprecedented, but should not be taken as being prohibitive of a Democratic upset.
While the national environment and redistricting worked in Kean’s favor this cycle, the tone of his campaign has only made his life harder. Should he win in November, as we expect, his future tenure in Congress will be in doubt unless he restores his image to its historic position.
My name is Harrison Lavelle and I am a political analyst studying political science and international studies at the College of New Jersey. As a co-founder and partner at Split Ticket, I coordinate our House coverage. I write about a variety of electoral topics and produce political maps. Besides elections, my hobbies include music, history, language, aviation, and fitness.
Contact me at @HWLavelleMaps or email@example.com