Election Review: New Jersey’s 7th district


Welcome to the second edition of Election Review, Split Ticket’s new ex post facto House analysis series. Following last week’s Ohio breakdown, today’s installment takes us east to New Jersey. We visualized the 7th district House election results using a number of maps and data tables, allowing us to quantitatively evaluate the impact of important themes like crossover voting and down-ballot lag. A future edition of this series will cover the impacts that differential turnout and educational polarization had in the 9th district. 

A Favorable Redistricting Cycle Elects Kean


New Jersey’s 7th district (D+0.6) was the state’s only competitive House seat last year. Almost our Congressional Voting Index (CVI)’s median seat, the well-educated 7th exemplifies the suburban battleground districts that helped Republicans win House control in 2022. Like similar seats elsewhere in the country (e.g., PA-01), the 7th is traditionally-Republican but has trended leftward as of late. 

These patterns accelerated during the Trump-era and culminated in the 2018 midterms, which saw Democrats flip House control for the first time since 2006. Though there were exceptions like NY-22 and ME-02, much of Pelosi’s majority came from flipping suburban Clinton districts like the 7th, which Democrats had in many cases not seriously contested before.

In a sign of solidifying realignment, many of the bluer seats that flipped in 2018 (e.g., MN-03, CO-06, VA-10) were not even competitive for Republicans in 2020, a cycle which Split Ticket found had a generic ballot of D+2.1 — about six points redder than 2018’s baseline. Since formidable GOP incumbents Erik Paulsen, Mike Coffman, and Barbara Comstock all lost by double-digits in 2018, their districts’ similar 2020 results probably had more to do with clear trend directionality than candidate quality. 

Because electoral trends tend to gradually trickle down from the top of the ticket, Romney-Clinton-Biden seats are usually redder down-ballot. The delta between the 7th’s D+3.8 2020 presidential partisanship and D+0.6 CVI, for example, highlights how down-ballot lag keeps Republicans in contention in increasingly-hostile districts. 

By running credible candidates who attracted ticket splitters, Republicans won 13 seats with Democratic CVI partisanships in 2022. Of those districts, six were bluer than D+4 — the threshold between EVEN and Moderately Democratic. The fact that the Republicans won 5 more CVI crossover seats than the Democrats, despite a D+0.6 House bias, shows how the GOP secured its slim 222-213 majority and explains why suburban battlegrounds like the 7th will decide control of the Tossup chamber in 2024.

Tom Kean’s 2020 Campaign

Going into the midterm cycle, Tom Kean Jr. was one of those top-tier Republican House recruits. The son of a popular ex-governor bearing the same name, Kean Jr. represented Union and Somerset counties in the New Jersey legislature for two decades. Thanks to his moderate voting record, Kean drew enough crossover support to repeatedly win the old 21st legislative district, which voted for Clinton and Biden by double-digits. In a sign of federal polarization, though, Kean lost the district to Malinowski in his 2020 congressional bid.

LD-21 Comparison (Courtesy @ECaliberSeven)

All of these factors convinced the NRCC that Kean, who had run for House in 2000 and Senate in 2006, would be the perfect candidate to take out Democratic incumbent Tom Malinowski in 2020. Malinowski, a former lobbyist and member of the Obama Administration’s State Department, had beaten moderate Republican incumbent Leonard Lance in 2018. 

Kean toed a centrist line against Malinowski, stressing the importance of bipartisan compromise and fighting the coronavirus. That campaign messaging, coupled with strong district-wide name recognition and an acknowledged independent record, lessened his connection to unpopular President Trump, who ended up losing the 7th by 10 points. Kean exceeded pundit expectations on election day, coming up short against Malinowski by just 5,311 votes (1.2%). 

NJ-07 Comparison (Courtesy @ECaliberSeven)

Kean outran 7th’s presidential lean by 8.8 points and posted an R+6.9 relative wins-above-replacement (WAR) overperformance by convincing thousands of moderate Biden voters to split their tickets. While he technically outpaced Trump in all six of the district’s counties, Kean’s performance deltas were particularly large in Union (R+10.2) and Somerset (R+9.5) — home to high concentrations of affluent, well-educated moderates who keep the Westfield-based 21st legislative district in Republican hands despite its Democratic presidential preferences.

Kean posted his biggest overperformance in Millburn Township (Essex), which shifted from Obama +11 in 2012 to Biden +48 in 2020 — a 37 point change. Malinowski only won it by 32, allowing Kean to outrun the top of the ticket by a whopping 16 points

Overall, 2020 Kean overperformed the most in the bluest parts of the district that were trending Democratic the fastest — in other words, places where down-ballot lag was strongest. Conversely, in the Warren County portion, he overperformed by just 3.6 points, a sign that his moderate messaging didn’t sway many additional voters in an area which already approved of Trump and was experiencing slightly slower Democratic trends than the rest of the district.

Kean’s campaign probably also focused less on Warren because it only cast a small portion of the vote under the 2012 lines and was assured to vote Republican anyway. Focusing on reinvigorating the traditional GOP base in Union and Somerset, the most populated parts of the 7th, proved far more effective at ensuring a close race.


Redistricting Overlap (Courtesy @JHK)

Following Malinowski’s near loss, Kean retired from the state senate and announced that he would seek a rematch in 2022. He got a helpful boost from redistricting along the way. The map adopted by the New Jersey Redistricting Commission shored up vulnerable Democratic incumbents Andy Kim (NJ-03), Josh Gottheimer (NJ-05), and Mikie Sherrill (NJ-11) in exchange for leaving Malinowski stranded.

The redrawn 7th took in the rest of Warren County along with new territory in northern Sussex. At the same time, reliably-Democratic municipalities strongly prone to down-ballot lag like Millburn (Essex) and Montgomery (Somerset) were removed from the district. 

The effects of the redesign were twofold. On the one hand, the 7th got whiter and more Republican (moving from Biden +10 to a more modest Biden +4). On the other hand, reliable Trump voters replaced many persuadable Democrats and moderate Republicans who had been willing to vote for Kean, reducing the 7th’s ticket-splitting potential. In other words, Kean’s 2020 coalition would have elected him to the redder district, but it would have been less effective than it could have been with a Republican-leaning national environment under the old lines.

Attempting to compensate for the addition of the new pro-Trump territory going into 2022, Kean’s campaign shifted its messaging rightward — making connections with the former President that had been avoided two years earlier. Kean also faced a flurry of right-wing challengers, most notably State Assemblyman Erik Peterson and Phil Rizzo. Both threatened to mobilize Warren, Sussex, and Hunterdon counties against him even though he had “the line” across the district.

His opponents’ momentum ended up being a mirage, with Kean winning 46-24-15% and carrying every county portion except that of sparsely-populated Sussex. Unfortunately, the campaign’s rightward tack, which ranged from an ad asking voters whether they were ready to stop “Pelosi puppets” to a flier claiming Kean always had Trump’s back, came back to haunt the ex-state senator in the general election against Malinowski.

Kean eventually defeated Malinowski by around 3 points, outrunning Trump (+6.6) but underperforming Jack Ciattarelli (-9.6), who came within four points of unseating Governor Phil Murphy in 2021. While Kean did manage to win one of the NRCC’s top targets, the orientation of his electoral coalition relative to 2020 visibly changed — a reflection of his campaign’s post-redistricting tone.

(Congress vs. 2020 President; Respective Maps Used; Counties in both Old & New Seats)

A quick look at the table above shows that while Kean did retain a decent amount of crossover support in Somerset and Union counties, he still lost ground. Union, the bluest county in the district, is particularly notable because it contains Kean’s hometown: Westfield. Under the old lines, Kean kept Malinowski’s win in Union within single-digits, outrunning Trump by 10 points — his largest overperformance excluding Essex (Millburn). 

In 2022, comparatively, he outran the former president by just 5 points there. Some of that decline certainly had to do with the addition of unfamiliar Democratic territory in Rahway and Linden to the seat, but redistricting wasn’t everything.

Kean also notably improved his showing in heavily-Republican Warren County. The scene of his weakest overperformance in 2020, Kean actually outran presidential partisanship more in Warren in 2022 than he did in his historical Union County base. His largest overperformance relative to the topline actually came from Sussex County, which is excluded here because it was added to the seat in 2022. 

All of these data suggest that Kean’s coalition partially shifted compared to 2020. Instead of overperforming the most in a solidly-Democratic county prone to down-ballot lag like Union, Kean made inroads in ruby red Warren and Sussex — both of which his campaign had invested heavily in during the primary in an effort to stop Rizzo and Peterson. 

In other words, it seems that the campaign’s attempts to accommodate the redrawn district had a deleterious effect on suburban ticket-splitting but enthused the traditional GOP base. On paper, the “Trump coalition” by itself would not be enough to win this version of the 7th. 

The campaign’s change in tone may have sacrificed ticket-splitting potential to turn out ardent supporters of the former president, but Kean still generated enough crossover voting (the vestiges of decades of admirable constituent service) in Somerset and Union to win the race. That’s why, despite technically being a 2022 WAR overperformer, his score decreased by 5.7 points relative to 2020.

Overlap Swing Old vs. New NJ-07 (Courtesy Joey Fox)

That coalition discussion brings us to a firm conclusion first made by Joey Fox of the New Jersey Globe late last year: redistricting saved Tom Kean Jr. in 2022. Put differently, Kean’s performance under the new, redder district lines suggests that he would have lost the old Biden +10 version of the 7th (that he nearly won in 2020) had redistricting not occurred. 

The average swing in the municipalities shared between the old and new boundaries was D+2.4, a solid improvement for Malinowski amid an environment that saw New Jersey’s generic ballot get 6 points redder relative to 2020. A glance at the individual swings in shared municipalities reinforces the observed shift in coalition emphasis from east to west. Kean improved relative to 2020 in the Warren County portion of the seat. His biggest decrease, by comparison, came in his Union County hometown of Westfield.

Conclusion – Looking at 2024

In our mostly-accurate pre-election examination of the 2022 race in New Jersey’s 7th district, we made one thing clear: Tom Kean has a clear path to reelection should he establish a record in Washington mirroring the one he forged in Trenton. Had his 2022 campaign focused even more on important points from 2020 like bipartisan lawmaking and constituent service projects, Kean probably still would have won the GOP primary and could have won the redrawn 7th by more — even after the Dobbs vs. Jackson decision.

Now that he is an incumbent, Kean is not at serious risk of losing a primary to anyone — even a consolidated conservative challenger. An incumbent New Jersey congressperson has not lost renomination in a non-redistricting primary since Al Siemienski in 1958. He will almost certainly outrun the eventual 2024 Republican presidential nominee, but whether or not he retains enough crossover support to hold the Democratic-trending district 7th will depend on his national branding; so far, he has toed a centrist line. 

His upcoming race, which could become a potential rematch with Tom Malinowski, should start at Tossup when our preliminary ratings come out in March. Just one step away from being the CVI’s median seat, one might say: “where the 7th goes, the House majority follows”. Keep that in mind as we wait for candidate declarations over the next few months.

Sources & Notes

This non-partisan analysis is not intended as a personal critique of any candidate or campaign.

Precinct results for Hunterdon, Hudson counties estimated using municipality margin and turnout comparison between 2021 gubernatorial and 2022 congressional.

All district partisanship figures are taken from Split Ticket’s Congressional Voting Index (CVI), which can be viewed interactively here

NJ 2021 Gubernatorial precinct data and precinct shapefile from Harvard Voting and Elections Science Team (VEST).

NJ-07 precinct data from New Jersey county boards of election, compiled by @AndrewTheWong

All other precinct data from New Jersey county boards of election, compiled by @HWLavelleMaps

Bergen County Educational Attainment Data from 2017-2021 ACS, Statistical Atlas.

Precinct Demographic Data from Dave’s Redistricting App.

Additional maps courtesy of JHK forecasts, Joey Fox, @ECaliber7, and AndrewTheWong

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