This year New Jersey is the site of three competitive races for the House of Representatives. It all began back in 2018 when Democrats rode the blue wave to flip four seats in the state’s delegation.
The main stimulus behind the strong Democratic performance in New Jersey last cycle was the unpopularity of President Trump. According to polling data from Monmouth University, from July 2017 to April 2018 Trump’s approval deficit increased from 20 points to 26 points. While the topline change is minimal, the fallout in the suburbs paints a clear picture. The disdain for the President that soured the Republican brand throughout the state.
Looking at this election, many of the variables that led to Democratic success last cycle remain the same. The environment remains strong for Democrats, Trump is still unpopular in the state as a whole, and Democratic candidates are running impressive fundraising machines and leading in polling averages. Keep an eye on the state as a bellwether to see if the suburban realignment of 2018 holds up during a Presidential year.
New Jersey’s 2nd district takes in most of South Jersey, including all of Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland, and Salem counties. It also includes parts of Burlington, Camden, Gloucester, and Ocean counties. From a trivia standpoint, the district is the largest in the state by geographic area and the most rural in the state by population distribution.
The district is one of the most multi-faceted seats in the state. Running down its eastern coast are dozens of scattered shore-towns reliant on beachfront tourism like Wildwood, Ocean City, and Cape May. There are also communities like Atlantic City that have historically fallen on hard-times but have consistent tourism thanks to the casino industry.
The center of the district is home to the non-arable Pine Barrens, now a state park. It also has the bulk of New Jersey’s rural farming community. The western half of the district is home to traditionally-Democratic white working-class voters living along the Delaware River in communities more closely tied to Philadelphia than to the shore in the east. Despite this geographic diversity, most of the population, and by extension the political power, is concentrated along the shore.
Outside of the state, the district is probably most known for its largest municipality: Atlantic City. Atlantic City is not only the most well-known of the shore communities, it is also arguably the most politically important because of its contribution to Atlantic County. Atlantic County has cast around a third of the total vote in the district in the last two elections.
The district currently leans Republican. It voted for President Obama by around eight points in 2008 and 2012 but flipped to President Trump by 4.6% in 2016. This was nearly a 13-point swing. Republican fortunes here appeared to improve even more in the 2019 legislative elections when Republicans flipped Jeff Van Drew’s old State Senate seat along with two seats in the State Assembly from the same district.
The 2nd was one of four seats to flip to the Democrats in 1974 in the wake of President Nixon’s Watergate Scandal. Interestingly, the 1974 cycle was similar to 2018. In both cases, the unpopularity of the President stimulated Democratic strength by energizing voters to support their candidates.
The Democrat elected that year was William “Bill” Hughes. He defeated Republican Congressman Charles Sandman, to whom he had lost his first Congressional bid in a 1970 nail-biter, 57-41%. Between 1975 and 1995, Hughes was re-elected with over 60% of the vote all but two times. This electoral reliability, along with his ability to overperform the top of the ticket in a district that voted for Reagan twice and Bush Sr. once, allowed him to spend more time focusing on issues that mattered to the 2nd in Congress.
In Congress, Hughes played an important role on crime policy as Chairman of the Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Crime. According to the 1994 Almanac of American Politics, Hughes “drafted the 1984 and 1990 crime acts, and the 1986 and 1990 drug bills. Subject matter included bans on child pornography, boot camps for drug offenders, limits on steroid use, and the Brady bill’s waiting period on handgun sales.”
Hughes also focused on issues that were important to the coastal communities that formed the foundation of the seat. He sponsored a 1988 bill with colleague Frank Pallone to ban ocean dumping to address one of the shore’s biggest environmental problems.
In 1992 Hughes defeated State Representative Frank LoBiondo 55.9-41.5%, the slimmest margin of his career. This, along with the fear of losing re-election in the ensuing red wave, prompted him to retire. The winner in 1994 was Frank LoBiondo who, like Hughes, won his bid for Congress on the second try. LoBiondo never faced a competitive race again, allowing him to focus on his work in Congress like his predecessor.
During his 24-year tenure in Congress, LoBiondo developed a reputation as a moderate Republican and an independent thinker. According to the 2014 Almanac of American Politics, LoBiondo was “one of the most moderate members of his party” and was affectionately called “LoBo” by his colleagues. Like his predecessor, he was rather liberal on policies relating to the environment and always valued constituent service. His dedication to his constituents was best shown after Hurricane Sandy when he went to the House floor to say, “Shame on you [Congress]…What does the misery index have to get to for our constituents.”
In 2018 LoBiondo retired from the House, citing increasing partisanship in Congress. As Politico reported in 2017, LoBiondo stated, “There is no longer a middle ground to honestly debate issues and put forward solutions”. Though Politico also quoted LoBiondo saying his decision to retire did not have to do with any fear of losing re-election, it’s likely he would’ve faced the closest race of his career had he run for a thirteenth term.
About the incumbent
The current incumbent is Republican Jeff Van Drew, who has been involved in South Jersey politics for nearly thirty years. Van Drew left his dental practice to enter politics in 1994, beginning his political career as a member of the Cape May County Board of Chosen Freeholders.
Van Drew took a step up in 2001, winning a seat in the State Assembly. He served there until his 2007 election to the Senate. During his tenure in the legislature, he formed a record as a conservative Democrat, voting against gay marriage rights in the legislature and supporting the 2nd Amendment. This strategy worked well for him in his Senate district, which he won by double-digits in 2013 and 2017 even as it voted against Democrats at the federal level.
In 2018, Van Drew saw the open House seat as the perfect opportunity to win a Congressional seat. Going into the race he had three major advantages. First, he had a proven record of being able to appeal to Republicans and unaffiliated voters from his Senate elections. Second, his opponent, Republican Seth Grossman, was largely considered a weak, controversial candidate. Third, the national environment was strong for Democrats, and that lurched into Congressional races up and down the state. In the end, though, Van Drew ended up winning the seat by a narrower-than-expected margin of 7.7%.
Following his victory, Van Drew brought his record as a conservative Democrat to Washington, voting against Speaker Pelosi twice – once in the caucus vote and once in the general vote. He later joined the Blue Dog Coalition and began to consistently vote toward the center of the House.
Van Drew ascended to national prominence in December 2019 after voting against both Articles of Impeachment against President Trump and announcing his switch to the Republican Party. Following his switch, he stressed his strong support for the President and argued that he couldn’t find a place to fit in in his caucus. Just a few months after switching parties, Van Drew was speaking in front of the 2020 RNC giving his full endorsement to President Trump while attacking Pelosi.
Though Van Drew was a conservative Democrat, he is now one of the more liberal Republicans. According to the latest data from Govtrack.us, Van Drew had a 100% rating from the Planned Parenthood Action Fund and was more liberal than six other House Democrats.
The 2020 Campaign
This cycle, Van Drew is facing a very strong challenger in Democrat Amy Kennedy. She is a former school teacher and wife of former Rhode Island Congressman Patrick Kennedy. Kennedy defeated Brigid Harrison and three other challengers by a landslide margin in the July primary, taking 62.1% of the vote.
While she began the general election campaign as a weak fundraiser, she has since managed to overcome her prior weakness. She raised $2.24 million in the third quarter according to The New Jersey Globe. The Globe also reported that Kennedy had over 16,000 online donors. With these new numbers, Kennedy is closing in on Van Drew, who currently leads in the cash on hand and total receipts categories according to the FEC.
Where did this enthusiasm come from? For one, the nationalization of Van Drew’s party switch, along with his speech at the RNC, has made him an unpopular figure among New Jersey Democrats. Secondly, Kennedy’s leads in four Democratic internal polls and the independent Monmouth University poll have shown the DCCC that the race is winnable and worth investing in. In just a few short months this seat went from a reach pickup opportunity for Democrats to one of the most vulnerable Republican-held seats in the country.
Kennedy has been particularly active on the airwaves so far, running multiple TV spots in the South Jersey media market. Some of her ads, like The Transformation of Jeff Van Drew, have focused on attacking Van Drew for switching parties, claiming he did it for his own personal gain. Others, like Real Solutions have painted Kennedy as a pragmatic problem-solver focused on the issues that matter to the district.
Van Drew has relied almost entirely on the NRCC for advertising help. The group’s latest ad, Lot of Merit, attacks Kennedy for reportedly saying that there was merit to the idea of defunding the police. Following chairman Josh Roesch’s criticism of the ad, the Kennedy campaign fired back with a new ad called Benefit, which echoes her first ad in characterizing Van Drew as opportunistic.
The two candidates faced off in a debate hosted by NJ Spotlight News last week. They discussed the coronavirus, pandemic relief and recovery, election security, political ideology, healthcare, the economy, race and policing, climate change, transportation, the Supreme Court, abortion, gun violence, social security, and mask-wearing. Both candidates appeared to align with their national party platforms.
In his closing statement, Van Drew attributed his personal success to American freedom of opportunity. He cited the election as the most important “since the Civil War” and encouraged all South Jersians to vote. In her closing statement, Kennedy stressed her South Jersey roots. She stated that she is running to ensure success for all of South Jersey.
With just three weeks left until election day, the battle for the 2nd remains a tossup. But due to the nature of this year’s election, many Americans have already voted. As the New Jersey Globe pointed out, Democrats currently lead Republicans by seven points in the 21,120 returned Vote by Mail (VBM) ballots as of October 8th. Regardless, the 2nd will certainly remain one of the most closely watched House races in the nation.
NJ-3 (Likely Democratic)
New Jersey’s 3rd district includes almost all of Burlington County along with portions of Ocean County. It is significantly more urban, and more Republican, than the neighboring 2nd. Despite the fact that it has usually been more Republican on paper than its southern neighbor, it has had higher Representative turnover. Four different representatives, including two Democrats, have represented it over the last decade.
Like the 2nd, the 3rd district is fairly geographically diverse. In the east, the district runs down the coast of quickly-developing Ocean county, taking in retiree-rich Republican shore towns like Tom’s River. The center of the district is home to the Pine Barrens, one of the more rural, underdeveloped nooks of the state. Interestingly, as the 2014 Almanac of American Politics points out, this otherwise sparse country of farmland and non-arable protected land is home to one of the east’s largest military bases: Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, which serves the Army, Air Force, and Navy. The western half of the district is home to the suburban towns of northern Philadelphia, which the Almanac describes as “not affluent, but comfortable.”
The district has a Republican lean that is best evidenced by its swing between the last two Presidential elections. President Obama carried the district by five percent in 2012 before it went to then-candidate Trump by six points in 2016. One fascinating aspect of the relationship between the 2nd and the 3rd districts pertains to their deviation from their respective Presidential toplines. How? Despite being a harder district to crack for Joe Biden at the Presidential level, the 3rd is widely considered the easier seat for Democrats to win on the House level.
For nearly thirty years the district was represented by Republican James “Jim” Saxton. He was elected to the House in a 1984 special election to replace Edwin Forsythe, who had died earlier that year. Much like his colleagues Hughes and LoBiondo, Saxton never faced a competitive election, allowing him to focus on his work in Congress.
The 1994 Almanac of American Politics described Saxton as “a politician who is cautiously conservative on national issues but cares about the home district first.” This commitment to his constituents drove his service in Congress. It allowed him to split with his party on important national issues, including the 1990 budget summit tax package.
One of the issues Saxton considered most important to his district was environmental protections for the shore. He, along with Hughes and Pallone, was one of the co-sponsors of the 1988 ocean dumping ban. According to the Almanac, he also sponsored a 1992 bill requiring ocean water testing to ensure adequate water quality.
Saxton was also a strong defender of Fort Dix, the largest military base in the district. He fought to save it from closure in 1993 by pushing for parts of the base to be converted into a federal prison. Saxton declined to seek reelection in 2008 after 25 years in Congress following a prostate cancer diagnosis.
In 2008, the seat flipped to the Democrats. Democratic State Senator John Adler defeated Republican Mayor Chris Myers 52-48%. The Philadelphia Inquirer attributed Adler’s victory in the “bruising and expensive” campaign to strong Democratic turnout following Saxton’s retirement.
The race was one of the top Democratic targets in 2008. This enthusiasm from the party’s campaign committee allowed Adler to run a very well-funded campaign for the seat, far out-raising Myers. In the end, the underlying unpopularity of President Bush at the advent of the great recession stimulated high Democratic turnout. This worked against Myers, who had received $65,000 from a Bush fundraiser. While Myers did attempt to distance himself from Bush during the fall general election campaign, the national environment was seemingly too much to overcome. With Saxton out, the typically-Republican district had finally flipped.
Adler went to Congress with a unifying message and was called one of the ten most centrist members of the chamber by the National Journal. Adler was a strong proponent of veterans’ healthcare issues from his seat on the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. The first bill he proposed, the Safeguarding America’s Seniors and Veterans Act, ensured that every person eligible for social security and veterans’ disability benefits would receive a single $500 payment.
Adler’s other notable vote from his single term in Congress was his vote against both versions of the Affordable Care Act. These votes reaffirmed Adler’s status as a moderate going into his 2010 reelection bid, but they weren’t enough to save him from an incredibly Republican environment.
That year Republicans fielded an exceptional candidate in Jon Runyan, a well-known former player for the Philadelphia Eagles. National Republicans believed they could mimic the Democrats’ 2008 strategy to win back the district: using a popular candidate to capitalize on an unpopular president to boost turnout for their party.
One of the major controversies of the campaign dealt with Tea Party candidate Peter DeStefano, who Democrats where accused of recruiting to pull votes from Runyan. The Adler campaign denied any involvement. In the end, DeStefano did not stop Runyan from winning. Despite heavily outspending Runyan, Adler lost 50-47% in November.
Like Adler, Runyan was fairly moderate for his party. According to the 2014 Almanac of American Politics, Runyan stuck with his caucus most of the time. However, he was not afraid to break with his party to support legislation beneficial to his district, such as the offshore drilling “moratorium”. With his concern for offshore drilling, he joined his predecessors Adler and Saxton in focusing on environmental issues important to the district’s eastern half.
One good anecdote from the Almanac about Runyan’s bipartisanship dealt with his relationship with Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi. It stated, “Unlike other Republicans who steer clear of Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Runyan regularly chats with her on the House floor. ‘The biggest thing is when I (go over to the Democratic side), Ms. Pelosi always comes up and starts talking football’.” Runyan ultimately decided not to make a career of Congress. He won his second term against Adler’s widow by 8 points, and retiring in 2014.
In 2014, another good year for Republicans, Tom MacArthur won the seat. MacArthur began the campaign with a twenty-point win over perennial Republican candidate Steve Lonegan, the mayor of Bogota, in the primary. That fall he won again, this time by over nine points against Burlington County Freeholder Aimee Belgard. MacArthur ran up large margins in Ocean County, and even managed to win Belgard’s home county of Burlington, typically the source of most of the Democratic votes in the district.
In Congress, MacArthur’s record was closer to his conservative colleague Scott Garrett, who held the 5th district before losing to Josh Gottheimer in 2016, than to those of his more moderate colleagues like Lance, Frelinghuysen, and LoBiondo. Importantly, however, MacArthur was able to hearken back to his predecessors’ records of constituent service by proposing the Disaster Assistance Fairness and Accountability Act of 2015. MacArthur’s legislation was inspired by Hurricane Sandy, which had devastated the entire New Jersey coast three years earlier. It sought to prevent FEMA from reclaiming disaster funds that had been previously appropriated.
MacArthur’s other big moment came in 2017, when he proposed the MacArthur Amendment to the American Healthcare Act, “TrumpCare”, in an effort to quell concerns within the Republican caucus about pre-existing conditions to ensure the passage of ObamaCare. MacArthur ultimately lost to Democrat Andy Kim in 2018, falling victim to a strong Democratic environment.
About the incumbent
The incumbent is Democrat Andy Kim. Kim began his political career in the national security field as a civilian adviser to the military in Afghanistan, and later as an adviser on President Obama’s National Security Council. Kim entered electoral politics in 2018 when he decided to challenge MacArthur in the 3rd district.
The 2018 race for the seat was one of the most-watched House races in the nation. Kim was running as an outsider with a fresh face, criticizing MacArthur for his efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act. In a Democratic environment, MacArthur seemed especially vulnerable, even in one of New Jersey’s more conservative House districts. This was a result of his conservative record on Healthcare and his support of President Trump. MacArthur and the NRCC attempted to fire back with advertising claiming Kim was part of the “DC Elite”. However, it did not seem to deal a major blow to Kim’s momentum in the end. On election day, Kim won 50-48.7%, winning Burlington by historic margins. The mobilization of the Democratic-trending suburbs were critical to his victory. They gave him the double-digit margin he needed in Burlington County to overwhelm the swath of Republican votes from Ocean County.
Kim, like his other two freshmen Democratic colleagues, has held the record of a moderately-liberal Democrat. GovTrack.us puts him slightly left of the center of the House. Kim’s first bill, the Strengthening Health Care and Lowering Prescription Drug Costs Act, otherwise known as the SAVE Act, would fund state-based healthcare sites.
Like his predecessors in the district, Kim has also established quite a constituent service operation. Constituent service is tremendously important to establishing strong connections between constituents and their representatives, and representatives with strong service operations often have an easier time attracting voters to support their reelection bids.
The 2020 Campaign
This year, Kim is running against Republican David Richter, former CEO of the prominent construction company Hill International. Richter secured the Republican nomination for the seat earlier this year, defeating former Burlington County Freeholder Kate Gibbs by a large margin.
While some observers initially believed that Richter’s ability to self-fund would give him an advantage in the general election, Kim has quickly proven that he is the unchallenged leader in the fundraising game. Only Josh Gottheimer, the Democratic incumbent from the 5th district, has raised more than Kim. Kim has a whopping total of $4.4 million compared to Richter’s $807,807 over the course of the campaign. Kim also leads in cash on hand, with $3.5 million compared to Richter’s $123,173. This gives him a decided advantage over Richter in all aspects of the campaign spending game going into the final weeks of the election.
There has been one poll in the 3rd this cycle. That poll, a Republican internal conducted by Basswood Research, showed Kim leading 45-42%. Despite the lack of polling so far, Kim’s impressive strength as a campaigner and an incumbent seem to have given him a decided advantage. The recognition of this advantage plays into our Likely Democratic rating here. The widely-respected 538 Model also shows Kim with a decided advantage over Richter, despite the fact that the district usually leans to the right.
Kim began his reelection campaign with a positive advertisement about his commitment to “serving the people”. The ad discusses his national security service under the Obama Administration and states that it helped shape Kim’s belief that serving the country is more important than serving a party. In his most recent ad, Kim highlighted his constituent service record during the coronavirus. It showed his work on ensuring home attendants and essential workers in the district have access to face masks.
Richter has also adopted a similarly positive tone to Kim in his biographical advertisements. In his September ad Time for Action, he points to his business record at Hill International as evidence of his ability to create and maintain jobs. In another recent ad called Back to Work, Richter argued that he would make a successful Congressman because he was a political outsider. He connected his message back to President Trump, a fellow outsider, whose leadership he praised at the beginning of the ad.
The campaign committees have been fairly active with attack ads so far. This has allowed the nominees to refrain from serious political attacks. The NRCC has been relatively silent on the airwaves, instead choosing to attack Kim for reportedly fundraising off of the coronavirus earlier this year. Unlike their Republican counterparts, the DCCC has hit hard on Richter so far. The committee’s latest ad questions David Richter’s success as CEO of Hill International, claiming he ran the company into the ground.
Both candidates met up for a virtual debate hosted by David Wildstein, Editor of the NJ Globe, earlier this month. The debate focused on a variety of issues based on questions created by the editor. You can watch the debate here.
In his closing statement, Richter attacked Kim’s record in Congress, calling him a “rubber stamp” for Speaker Pelosi’s agenda. Richter finished by posing himself as an alternative to Kim. He also reiterated his belief that his policies were the best to promote job growth for the district.
Kim countered Richter by asking the voters to look at his work for the district in Congress before making judgements about his record. He restated the positive theme of his first campaign ad by pointing out his commitment to the district and its constituents. Kim ended his statement by stating that he wished to continue his career in public service to “bridge the divide”.
Going into November, Kim appears to be the favorite to win reelection over Richter. In fact, Kim currently seems to be in a better position to win his race than Democrats Malinowski and Kennedy are to win theirs. This is interesting considering Kim’s district is more Republican on paper than both districts 2 and 7.
The most fascinating aspect of the race will be its relationship to the Presidential topline. Given Kim’s current status as a favorite in this Trump 2016 district, it’s reasonable to expect him to outrun Democratic Presidential nominee Joe Biden. If he does significantly outrun Biden, it should reaffirm the importance of establishing “a local brand” to electoral success and regional popularity.
NJ-7 (Leans Democratic)
New Jersey’s 7th district is in North Jersey, taking in parts of Hunterdon, Somerset, Union, Morris, Warren, and Essex counties. The seat is more Democratic than districts 5 and 11 on paper. However, it currently more winnable for Republicans on the Congressional level than both its counterparts.
The 7th is quite an interesting seat. To start, it is significantly more affluent than the 2nd and 3rd districts; the median income here is around $115,000/year, far above the $63,000/year median of the 2nd. This discrepancy has to do with the suburbs of the 7th, which are significantly wealthier than the comfortable, middle-income suburbs of working class whites in the western half of the 2nd and 3rd districts along the Delaware River. While the northern suburbs have traditionally been more Republican than their southern counterparts, the quick shift toward the Democrats in districts like the 7th has helped unite the suburbs across the state in a way that hasn’t really been seen before.
The 7th is home to multiple different communities, most of which have become comfortable exurban nooks for high-income commuter families that left behind the high rates of crime and poverty in the cities running along the northeastern spine of the state decades ago. Residents here rely on Interstate 78 and Route 22 to commute by car to work outside of these peaceful suburbs. Some residents settled here to avoid the high costs of living in Manhattan. They take advantage of NJ Transit to get to work in New York City and back on a daily basis. What started as empty farm country home to the wealthy owners of elaborate manors and estates at the beginning of the 20th century is now one of the fastest-growing, most-quickly diversifying suburbs on the east coast.
The district’s western half takes in the rolling hills of southern Warren County farm county. It then streches down to the quickly-developing suburbs of Hunterdon County. Its center runs through the picturesque communities of Morris and Somerset County. They are some of the safest, and most affluent, in the country. Its eastern arm extends onward through Union County all the way to Short Hills on the southern edge of Essex County.
The district currently leans Democratic. While suburban voters here are clearly still open to supporting down-ballot Republicans like Jon Bramnick and Tom Kean, many of those same voters have grown increasingly dissatisfied with the federal iteration of the Republican Party as it has manifested itself over the last four years. The seat voted for Romney by over 6 points during the 2012 election before voting for Clinton by 1 point in 2016. This seven percent swing was larger than the Democratic swings in districts 5 and 11 (which both still voted for Trump in 2016). It painted a picture of discontent with President Trump and the national Republican party that led to the demise of once-popular incumbents like Leonard Lance in the midterms.
Republican Mike Ferguson was elected to the 7th district in 2000 when incumbent Republican Bob Franks retired from his seat to run for the open Senate seat against Jon Corzine, a race he ended up narrowly losing.
In Congress, Ferguson sought to live up to the moderate record he had campaigned on. One of his key issues, according to the 2008 Almanac of American Politics, was education – namely “increasing public school accountability”.
Ferguson has been described by the Almanac as centrist on economic and social issues but conservative on defense-related policy. They cited his vote against ANWR drilling and his support for the use of force in Iraq.
In 2004 Ferguson faced a challenger that Democrats believed had a legitimate chance of defeating him. His name was Stephen Brozak, an Iraq War veteran. According to the Almanac, Brozak raised over $1 million. He was even given a speaking slot at the 2004 DNC as one of its “rising stars”. In the end, however, Brozak let down national Democrats, losing 57-42%.
Democrats revised their strategy going into the blue wave of 2006. This was a cycle where Republicans gained zero seats against the Democrats, who swept the House map, picking up a net of 31 seats. Linda Stender, the Democratic candidate that cycle, was a significantly better candidate than Brozak had been two years prior. Stender held Ferguson to a margin of less than two percent, convincing him to retire in 2006.
In 2008, Republican State Senate Minority Leader Leonard Lance ran for the open seat in the 7th. Believing she had a better chance at winning an open seat in another good Democratic environment, Stender ran again. To the surprise of many observers, Lance won with a majority of the vote, defeating Stender by around eight points.
Lance, like Ferguson, was a relatively moderate Republican during his tenure. He never faced a particularly close election again until his 2018 reelection loss to Democrat Tom Malinowski.
About the incumbent
The incumbent here is Democrat Tom Malinowski. Malinowski began his career as a speech writer in the state department of the Clinton Whitehouse before moving to Human Rights Watch. He worked as a lobbyist there for over a decade. In 2014, he was confirmed by the Senate as Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. Following his leaving of office in 2017, he decided to make a bid for Congress in 2018 against long-time Lance.
The 7th was one of the top Democratic pickup targets in 2018, and thus one of the most-watched House campaigns in the nation. Like Kim and Sherrill, Malinowski was running as a new candidate with a fresh message that ended up resonating with the electorate. This “fresh start” was exemplified well in Malinowski’s first ad He stood up to dictators. He’ll stand up for us. Lance seemed particularly vulnerable that cycle thanks to the hostile new partisan lean of his district. This lean seemed to be exaggerated further by the state of the national environment.
Malinowski further damaged Lance by tying him to national Republicans, distorting his moderate voting record. While national Republicans attempted to brand Malinowski as a “Pelosi liberal” in the final stages of the campaign, the Democratic momentum of the 2018 midterm election was simply too much for Lance to overcome. He ultimately lost his reelection bid 51.7-46.7%.
Since entering Congress, Malinowski has formed a similar record to his colleague Andy Kim. According to data from GovTrack.us, Malinowski is roughly in the middle of the Democratic caucus ideologically, making him a standard Democrat. But Malinowski has not been afraid to work across the aisle. Earlier this fall, he joined Republican Congressman Denver Riggleman of Virginia in an act of bi-partisanship to propose legislation to fight against misinformation from the far-right conspiracy group Qanon.
Malinowski has had a strong commitment to constituent service over the course of his term. This schedule has not faltered since the outbreak of the coronavirus. When safety regulations prevented him from continuing to hold in-person town halls, Malinowski began a summer series of virtual town hall sessions called Congress in Your Kitchen. They sought to keep constituents informed on the proceedings of Congress during the coronavirus. To a certain extent, Malinowski’s constituent service has allowed him to establish a regional brand in a similar way to Andy Kim, Chris Smith, and other colleagues.
The 2020 Campaign
This year, Malinowski is being challenged by Republican State Senator and Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr. Kean is arguably the best Republican nominee for House in the state this cycle. This is thanks to his moderate image and history of garnering crossover votes from Democrats. While Kean was able to maintain his crossover appeal in his 2017 State Senate reelection in a Clinton +9 district, it is unclear how he will perform in a federal race for the House. This is a district that Joe Biden is widely expected to win by a larger margin than Hillary Clinton.
The fundraising game for the campaign this year is the perfect indicator of just how competitive this race is. Both parties consider this a top seat to win this November, and there has been strong spending on both sides. Despite Kean’s recent momentum in the fundraising category, Malinowski has maintained his lead in total funds raised and cash on hand by roughly $2.1 million in both categories according to the latest FEC data. This puts Malinowski on par with fellow Democratic incumbents Kim, Gottheimer, and Sherrill. All of them have fundraising advantages over their challengers going into reelection.
Surprisingly, only one recent poll has been publicly released in the district. That poll, a Republican internal conducted by Basswood Research, showed Kean leading 39-38% with a significant number of undecided voters. Similarly to the third, where Kim maintains his status as a favorite without significant polling evidence, Malinowski appears to be a narrow favorite in his reelection race. Why? Biden is still expected to increase Clinton’s 2016 margins in north Jersey districts like the 7th. This should be enough to pull Malinowski over the line against Kean in November. Malinowski’s constituent service and fundraising advantage should also combine with the Democratic environment to give him a slight advantage in what remains a very competitive race.
Both Malinowski and Kean have kept their personal advertising relatively positive, leaving attacks to their respective campaign committees. Malinowski began his fall ad campaign with an ad titled Mask which proposed a message of unity in response to division over the coronavirus response. Kean began his ad campaign in a similar manner, running an ad called Times Like These in which he argued that could bring bipartisan change. Kean said he’d be a congressman “who works for all of us”.
The campaign ads from the two-party campaign committees have been particularly inflammatory so far. The DCCC’s most recent ad, Not up for the job, calls Kean beholden to special interests. It says he would gut healthcare and oppose cuts to prescription drug prices. The NRCC has struck an even-lower, and more controversial, blow with their latest two ads against Malinowski falsely-accusing him of lobbying of lobbying to get rid of the sex offender registry during his work at Human Rights Watch. Malinowski received death threats from Qanon following the NRCC’s advertising. Despite the repudiation of the ads, the NJ Globe reported that the organization was doubling down on the line of attack against Malinowski in a new ad released last week called Damage.
Both candidates attended a virtual debate last month hosted by Wildstein. In the debate, the candidates discussed various issues, including the coronavirus response, President Trump, and the economy. You can watch the debate here.
In his conclusion, Kean argued that Malinowski was using his position in Congress to benefit himself. He called Malinowski a Washington insider beholden to Speaker Pelosi’s agenda before the constituents of his district. Kean finished by arguing that he would be a job creator and a Congressman for everyone in the district, committed to finding solutions.
Malinowski concluded by arguing that his record is proof of his commitment to the district. He stated that he stood with the district on issues like healthcare, infrastructure, gun control, and post-COVID economic revitalization. He concluded that he would continue to be someone to determine what is right and what is wrong for the sake of defending the values of the district’s constituents if he is reelected.
Malinowski may be the favorite in the race for the 7th district as of now. However, it is important to not underestimate Kean’s ability as a candidate. The district remains highly competitive, and to some extent independent of its Presidential topline. Regardless of the winner, the race remains one of the most important Congressional campaigns of this cycle.