Democrats on the ropes from redistricting could determine balance of power in Congress

In a newly drawn New Jersey district, an incumbent Democrat faces a tough race.

June 11, 2022, 4:03 PM

This year's redistricting process reduced electoral competition, giving incumbents bolstered protection. But not every officeholder gets a break, even if members of their own party help draw the maps.

Take Rep. Tom Malinowski, the Democrat incumbent of New Jersey's 7th Congressional District, which he flipped from red to blue in 2018, maintaining his seat by fewer than two points in 2020. Now, thanks to a new map, the district inherits a large chunk of Republican voters, putting Malinowski on the ropes again, with his seat vulnerable to Republican takeover.

And with only five seats needed to give the GOP control of the House, the political stakes of the crop of newly competitive races for seats currently held by Democrats couldn't be higher.

"This is the race that is going to determine whether Democrats control the House of Representatives for the next two years, or the people who supported the insurrection on January 6th," said Malinowski during a campaign event with Union City Democrats in the commuter town of Rahway, a new part of his district. That's an easy choice for the good people of New Jersey."

Unfortunately for Malinowski, that choice will likely be anything but easy with the new lines.

When a panel of New Jersey lawmakers were tasked with redrawing the state’s congressional boundaries, Democrats faced a challenge: How do they help draw a map that ensures they maintain their majority in Congress? The decision was to draw eleven of the twelve districts as safely partisan, leaving one remaining race competitive. That seat? Malinowski’s.

If things go poorly for Malinowski come November, Rutgers Professor John Farmer says the New Jersey congressman "will be seen as having been sacrificed."

PHOTO: Sen. Thomas H Kean Jr. answers a questions in Trenton, N.J., Oct. 5, 2016.
Sen. Thomas H Kean Jr. answers a questions in Trenton, N.J., Oct. 5, 2016.
Mel Evans/AP, FILE

Unsurprisingly, national Republicans have been on the offensive.

Malinowski and Rep. Cindy Axne, an Iowa Democrat, both advanced to a general election challenge after winning their state's primaries and are some of the top targets of the National Republican Congressional Committee. The group, alongside other House-aligned Super PAC called The Congressional Leadership Fund, has poured millions of dollars in the efforts to push New Jersey's 7th district from lightly to solidly red.

PHOTO: Rep. Tom Malinowski speaks during a news conference in Westfield, N.J., Aug. 9, 2021.
Rep. Tom Malinowski speaks during a news conference in Westfield, N.J., Aug. 9, 2021.
Bloomberg via Getty Images, FILE

Malinowski must now fend off Tom Kean Jr., the son of former Gov. Thomas Kean, whose legacy helps him elbow out the competition from both more moderate and MAGA wings of the Jersey GOP. Kean lost to Malinowski by a hair in 2020, and new maps give him the upper hand for the rematch.

"I am both humbled and fully committed to flipping this seat in November," Kean wrote in a statement on Twitter after his primary victory.

During hits on cable news -- mostly Fox -- he's been slamming Malinowski on rising costs and inflation in D.C., kitchen table issues that tend to swing New Jersey voters.

In addition to creating some newly competitive districts, redistricting has also forced some Democrats to run against fellow Democrats in incumbent-on-incumbent primaries. Such was the case for Georgia Rep. Lucy McBath, who advanced to the general after being forced into Georgia's 7th Congressional District, ousting Democratic Rep. Carolyn Bordeaux. And history will repeat itself in New York come August in perhaps the hottest incumbent-on-incumbent primary when Democrats Rep. Jerry Nadler squares off with Rep. Carolyn Maloney in New York's new 12th district.

In the walk-up to the November election, the path for Democrats is anything but clear.

At a campaign event with supporters in Springfield area coffee shop, Malinowski gave a candid appraisal of the road ahead for Democrats like him.

"We're the only ones who actually, by our votes and by our work, get to decide, get to make a difference in terms of which way the wind is blowing in America one way or another. And that is a burden. It means we have to work much harder. It's going to cost us a lot of money. But I think it's also a privilege," said Malinowski. "We actually could go either way, and that makes the investment that all of us are going to make in this campaign all the more important."

Related Topics

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events