Another year comes another election cycle in the great state of New Jersey. The fun in the Garden State changes each year, but the big show this year are the Congressional elections. Before we get started analyzing the individual races, however, let’s start with some background information.
How Congressional Maps are drawn in New Jersey
Congressional maps in New Jersey are drawn by a political commission comprised of six Democrats, six Republicans, and an “independent” tiebreaker. Despite the system being set up to favor compromise between the two parties, they have not been able to decide on bipartisan maps in recent years. Instead, in both 2011 and 2021, maps were passed on a purely partisan 7-6 vote, with the tiebreaker having to decide between two partisan maps. Democrats were able to prevail this decade, thanks to a favorable tiebreaker. An interactive version of this decade’s Congressional map can be viewed here.
Recent History of NJ Congressional Elections
In the 2000s, an extremely effective “incumbentmander” locked in a 7D-6R delegation for most of the decade. The only exception came in 2008 when Congressman Jim Saxton (R, NJ-03)’s retirement gave Democrats a rare pickup opportunity. Democratic State Senator John Adler defeated Medford Mayor Chris Myers by 4%, riding on the blue wave which swept the nation. Adler went into 2010 only to find himself defeated by former NFL player Jon Runyan Sr. as the 3rd district reverted back to its traditional Republican roots.
As the 2000s passed and the 2010s arrived, New Jersey found itself losing a district. As a result, both parties proposed maps trying to protect all of their incumbents while tossing an incumbent of the opposing party under the bus. Republicans prevailed in this redistricting fight, and a 6D-6R delegation was locked in as a result.
Cracks in the new map started to form in 2016 when seven-term Republican incumbent Scott Garrett lost a close reelection to Democratic campaign advisor and Clinton administration speechwriter Josh Gottheimer. State Republicans saw this as a fluke result, as Garrett was under controversy over reported comments he made regarding not paying dues to the NRCC because they had supported openly gay candidates. Little did they know that this was only the beginning of what was to come.
The 2018 midterms were widely expected to be a blue wave due to the unpopularity of incumbent Republican President Donald Trump and the so-called “midterm effect“. Still, state Republicans were confident they could hold most or all of their Congressional seats, as every incumbent Republican representative won by a minimum of 11% just two years prior. But that changed quickly, starting with the retirements of longtime representatives Frank LoBiondo (R, NJ-02) and Rodney Frelinghuysen (R, NJ-11). Democrats quickly landed top-tier recruits, State Senator Jeff Van Drew and retired navy helicopter pilot Mikie Sherrill, in those districts and locked them up as likely Democratic flips. In two other districts, NJ-03 and NJ-07, large suburban backlash and strong Democratic candidates toppled otherwise secure Republican incumbents Tom MacArthur and Leonard Lance. The only New Jersey House Republican spared that year was longtime Congressman Chris Smith, who resided in a Trump +15 district.
Coming into 2020, it was clear the Garden State was poised for an entertaining election cycle. The party switch Van Drew, elected just two years prior, to the Republicans understandably angered Democrats, who vowed to unseat the incumbent. In addition, the entrance of State Senate Minority Leader Thomas Kean Jr. (R) into the NJ-07 Congressional Race turned what was expected to be a relatively comfortable Democratic hold in the Trump era into a highly competitive contest. In the end, Van Drew defeated Democratic challenger Amy Kennedy by a surprisingly large 6% margin. Up in North Jersey, incumbent Democratic Congressman Tom Malinowski was pushed over the finish line by Biden’s coattails to finish 1.2% ahead of Kean. Despite starting off the decade with a promising 6D-6R map, Jersey Republicans find themselves with only two Congressional seats to work with at the end of the decade.
A Note on the New Jersey “County Line” System
Before anyone analyzes an election in New Jersey, one has to take note of a Jersey primary process, known as the “county line”. To put it simply, local county parties nominate their preferred candidate in each contest and the candidate is given an extremely favorable spot on the primary ballot. The advantage of being on the “county line” cannot be overstated; many candidates quickly drop out if they fail to receive support of the county parties. For further information detailing the impact of the New Jersey “county lines” in primaries, I recommend reading the report here by New Jersey Policy Perspective.
The Congressional Races to Watch in 2022 (and beyond)
NJ-02 – Van Drew is running for reelection. Despite a concentrated effort by state and national Democrats to defeat him in 2020, he defied seemingly tough odds to win reelection by a comfortable 6% margin in this South Jersey district. This year, Van Drew likely faces civil rights attorney Tim Alexander (D), who has won the endorsement of all six county parties in the district. The new NJ-02 is more Republican than the previous iteration, voting for Trump by five percentage points, up from 2.9% before. South Jersey has undoubtedly been trending away from Democrats, and Republican Jack Ciattarelli carried this district by an estimated 21 points in 2021’s gubernatorial contest. In a year where Democrats are fighting for their lives trying to defend House seats in territory where Biden won convincingly, they are unlikely to place much of their resources trying to topple a strong incumbent in a Trump+5 district. As a result, Elections Daily has this race rated as Safe Republican.
NJ-03 – Democratic incumbent Congressman Andy Kim is running for reelection in this drastically reconfigured NJ-03. By ceding all of blood-red Ocean County from the district, the district goes from a seat which voted for Trump by 0.2% to a seat which voted for Biden by 14%. Kim will likely face Republican businessman Bob Healey Jr., who has won the support of all state parties in the district. Kim is a strong incumbent who’ll likely run ahead of a generic Democrat, but the national environment is not a favorable one and Healey is not a weak opponent. The district’s partisan lean, however, should be able to carry him to a rather comfortable win. Elections Daily has this race rated as Likely Democratic.
NJ-05 – Congressman Josh Gottheimer was the first of five Democrats to flip a Republican Congressional seat in the past decade, leading off the suburban realignment. He now likely faces Marine combat veteran Nick De Gregorio as he seeks reelection in this significantly bluer district. As a moderate Democrat, Gottheimer fits well with his North Jersey suburban district and has consistently overperformed the Presidential topline, which is quite impressive for a Democrat in this ancestrally Republican district. De Gregorio is a decent challenger and Democratic Governor Phil Murphy only carried this district by about 1% in 2021, but Gottheimer’s incumbency and electoral record gives him a significant edge in this double-digit Biden seat. We’re rating this race as Likely Democratic.
NJ-07 – The 7th district hosts the most exciting contest in the Garden State, with a highly anticipated rematch between Malinowski and Kean. As a consequence of making the neighboring 5th and 11th districts bluer, the 7th has become much more Republican on the new map. While Biden won the previous district by 10 points, he was only able to carry the current version by 3.7%. Malinowski defeated Kean by just 1.2% under the old lines, so there’s virtually no margin of error for the incumbent. In fact, it’s Malinowski who likely has to be making up ground in a significantly redder year.
The math for this district is quite simple:
Union County (~24% of the votes in the district): Biden+25.5
Rest of the District (~76% of the votes in the district): Trump+3.4
For Malinowski to win, he’ll likely have to keep his margin of victory in Kean’s home county of Union over 20 points, while running roughly even with Biden in the rest of the district. Given the current environment and the fact that he ran way behind Biden in 2020, that seems like quite the feat to pull off.
In addition, Malinowski currently faces multiple ethnic complaints over his failure to comply with stock disclosure requirements. It definitely seems like Kean has the advantage here, and we’re rating this district as Leans Republican (FLIP).
NJ-11 – Once a Republican stronghold under popular Congressman Rodney Frelinghuysen, the 11th district has taken a sharp leftward turn during the Trump era along with the rest of the North Jersey suburbs. Now, this seat is simply off the table for Republicans; the new 11th district is solidly Democratic at Biden +17. Republicans were hoping to draft Assemblywoman Aura Dunn into the race, but she has decided against a Congressional run. Without a top-tier challenger, incumbent Congresswoman Mikie Sherrill should cruise to reelection in this Safe Democratic contest.
A Final Word
Democrats were able to advance an extremely favorable Congressional map out of the commission, securing almost all of their incumbents. However, NJ-07 incumbent Malinowski was sacrificed as a result and is likely to lose his seat this year. At Biden+3.7 and left-trending, Democrats will have their fair share of opportunities later in the decade to take down Kean if they lose the seat this year, but for now, New Jersey seems to be heading for a 9D-3R Congressional Delegation in 2023.