House races kick into gear

COLLEEN O'DEA, SENIOR WRITER AND PROJECTS EDITOR | SEPTEMBER 7, 2022 

NJ Spotlight News

One of the main races to watch is in the 7th Congressional District, where Republican Tom Kean Jr. (left) is challenging Democratic incumbent Rep. Tom Malinowski (right).

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With Labor Day come and gone, campaign season begins in earnest in New Jersey. Democrats are touting recent gains in Washington meant to curtail climate change, reduce prescription drug prices and ultimately blunt inflation while Republicans are blaming the party in power for the high price of gas and groceries and for continuing supply chain issues.

Pundits were predicting Democrats to lose big in November. But Democrats passed the Inflation Reduction Act and the first gun control legislation in decades. The U.S. Supreme Court curtailed abortion in many states and expanded gun rights. All of that may have given the party in power new life and a chance to be competitive despite the historical losses the president’s party typically suffers in a midterm election. Democrats hold 10 of New Jersey’s dozen seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, and the party can’t afford to lose these if it is going to hold onto its slim majority in Washington.

Over the last two elections, New Jersey has had four swing races. But some had predicted that incumbents in even staunchly Democratic districts could have a tough time this November for a number of reasons. But with both inflation and gas prices declining and Democrats bragging about federal funding for infrastructure projects, including the Gateway tunnel, the focus is now back to just a handful of districts, with central Jersey Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-7th) continuing to be most at risk of losing his seat following a redistricting that shifted from a Democratic voter registrant plurality to a Republican plurality.

“We have a lot of moving parts right now, but all those moving parts have been moving in Democrats’ favor, and we can probably trace it to around the time of the Dobbs (abortion) decision,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, referring to the Supreme Court decision in June. “Then about a month later, the president’s job approval rating started to climb. Inflation started to drop, gas prices started to drop. Then he (Biden) had a big success unexpectedly with the climate change bill. All those things put together have given the Democrats some hope.”

‘Massive interest’

“To say this cycle’s campaigns are nationalized is an understatement,” said Micah Rasmussen, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University. “Abortion is absolutely driving massive interest in this year’s elections … At the same time, we are hearing less about inflation, as it appears to have peaked. Democrats certainly feel they have more to talk about with their recent legislative wins, and those will enthuse their supporters.”

Still, with Election Day about two months away, a lot can happen. Continuing drops in prices, especially for gas, and news of forced pregnancies should benefit Democrats, while increasing inflation or legal attacks on former President Donald Trump would likely embolden Republican voters.

“This is all still in flux,” Murray said. “We could have the oil market drop out in October. That equation could change. We don’t know what’s going to happen with the Mar-a-Lago investigation and movement there in one way or the other could have a major impact. An indictment or arrest could spark Trump’s base to be a little more enthusiastic … So it’s very much up in the air.”

The first race to watch

In New Jersey, Malinowski’s race is the one to watch, rated by national prognosticators as leaning Republican or, at best, a toss-up. Malinowski, now a two-term incumbent who rode the 2018 “blue wave” into office, has been aggressively courting voters at town halls, public events and door to door. His opponent for the second election in a row, Republican Tom Kean Jr., on the other hand, has been virtually invisible, with no public speaking events, although his Facebook page has pictures of him meeting voters in their neighborhoods.

Voter registration in the newly reconfigured 7th District is now one-third Republican and just 31% Democratic, giving Kean an edge. But Malinowski is talking about the Democrats’ accomplishments and hammering Kean on the abortion issue. Although Kean has said in the past that he supports abortion rights, one of his last votes as a state senator in January was against a bill codifying abortion rights in New Jersey. A hard-to-find page on his campaign website touts his conservative credentials and calls Kean “a fierce defender of the sanctity of life, fighting every step of the way to protect the unborn from egregious abortion laws.”

Murray noted that Malinowski won by about 5,000 votes in 2020, and this year’s race could also be close — and abortion should help the Democrat with independents and moderate Republicans.

“It’s not going to bring out a huge number of people,” he said. “All you’re going to need is just a couple of percentage points differential and that’s what Democrats are looking at right now, is that this has moved the needle by a couple of points and that might be all they need.”

Others to keep an eye on

Republicans are also targeting incumbent Rep. Andy Kim in the 3rd District in the center of the state and Rep. Josh Gottheimer in the northernmost 5th District, though the new district lines are far more favorable to them, increasing the percentage of registered Democrats in each to about 36%, compared with about 26% Republican registrants.

Gottheimer is seeking his fourth term, having upset Republican Rep. Scott Garrett in 2016 when Trump won the district, while Kim was swept in on the “blue wave” four years ago. Kim faces Republican Bob Healey, a business owner and first-time candidate, while Gottheimer has a rematch against Frank Pallotta, a conservative who is retired following a career in investment banking. Both those races are considered either likely or solidly Democratic.

Rep. Mikie Sherrill, the Democrat representing the 11th District that now spans parts of Morris, Passaic and Essex counties, flipped that former Republican stronghold in 2018 and is the favorite to win a third term after this district, too, grew more Democratic as a result of redistricting. Sherrill faces Republican Paul DeGroot, a former prosecutor in Passaic County.

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published this page in News and Politics 2022-09-07 02:26:16 -0700