How redrawing NJ’s congressional districts could affect incumbents — and national politics

Decisions made by redistricting commission involve high stakes. Is the process fair?

New Jersey’s congressional districts are about to be redrawn and the stakes are high not just for the 12 members who represent those districts, but also for the national Democratic and Republican parties.

With the Democrats holding only nine more seats in the House than the Republicans and the president’s party typically losing seats in the midterm elections, the fate of the three New Jersey districts that Democrats flipped to blue three years ago could help decide which party takes control of the House next year.

In New Jersey, the question is whether after redistricting the Democrats will be able to hold on to the 10 seats they currently occupy.

The makeup of the New Jersey Redistricting Commission, the body charged with redrawing the boundaries of the state’s dozen congressional districts based on the latest census data, has recently been decided.

How might its decisions affect incumbents’ prospects and is the state’s redistricting process really fair?

“I think Republicans are going to be hard-pressed to take back seats currently held by Democrats,” said Matthew Hale, a political science professor at Seton Hall University.

But the Republican National Congressional Committee and other right-leaning groups are already running digital ads against the sophomore Democrats in an effort to retake those districts in next year’s midterm elections.

For most of the last decade, New Jersey’s House delegation was split evenly between the parties and most incumbents breezed to reelection each year in districts designed to favor one party of the other.

Bucking the trend five years ago, Democrat Josh Gottheimer upset seven-term Republican Scott Garrett to win the formerly red 5th District in north Jersey. Then in the 2018 midterms as part of the backlash over the election of President Donald Trump two years earlier, four other districts flipped to the Democrats, leaving Rep. Chris Smith of the 4th District the only New Jersey Republican in the House. Longtime Democrat Jeff Van Drew switched parties 10 months into his first term, decreasing the Democrats’ edge to 10-2 in the House. Last year’s election maintained that.

WATCH: Malinowski’s lead over Kean shrinks in 7th District race

READ: Kean concedes in 7th District race

GOP eyes these seats

Republicans are looking to try to retake the three remaining seats they lost in 2018. Democratic Reps. Andy Kim in the 3rd District in South Jersey and Mikie Sherrill in the 11th District in the north were reelected with about 53% of the vote in 2020. Rep. Tom Malinowski in the 7th, also in the north had a much closer call, winning with just 50.6% of the vote, or about 5,300 ballots.

“Sherrill is a rock star and Gottheimer is perfectly positioned for his more centrist and moderate district, which makes those two seats really difficult for Republicans,” said Hale. “Malinowski and Kim are their best shot.”

Kim is one of only seven Democrats representing districts that voted for Trump last year.

Malinowski’s small victory margin makes him a natural target, but Republicans also see him as the most vulnerable because of a controversy involving stock trades. The Associated Press reported last month that Malinowski had bought or sold as much as $1 million in companies with a stake in the coronavirus pandemic as part of more than $3 million in trades the congressman was late in disclosing. Malinowski said he had no excuse other than being busy for missing the disclosure deadline and his broker, Gagnon Securities, issued a statement saying all its trade decisions were made “without Congressman Malinowski’s input or knowledge.” Malinowksi said he is putting all his investments in a blind trust to avoid any future appearance of a conflict of interest.

Ads critical of Malinowski

But the Congressional Leadership Fund, the Republican House super PAC, is running digital ads that proclaim, “While New Jerseyans were dying, Tom Malinowski was making a killing.”

“Timing is everything in politics, so last year’s tight finish between Malinowski and (state Sen. Tom) Kean, combined with the recent news about Malinowski’s stock trades, must be keeping him awake at night to the extent that they reinforce the sense that he is the most vulnerable Democrat in New Jersey’s House delegation,” said Micah Rasmussen, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University

Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean (R-Union) is likely to challenge Malinowski again next year. Kean, who is retiring from the Legislature at the end of this year, has failed in three congressional bids but might be able to win next year without President Biden atop the ticket to give Malinowski a boost.

Democratic leaders in the state have said they stand behind Malinowski.

“Especially at this perilous time when our party’s majority in Congress hangs in the balance and there are so many critical issues that must be addressed, we need to fight for every seat,” said Saily Avelenda, executive director of the New Jersey Democratic State Committee in a statement last month. “Turning Congress back over to the Republicans is not an option, and we will continue to support Congressman Malinowski.”

Trying to hold 10 seats in a state that has almost 1.5 million registered Republicans and another 2.4 million unaffiliated voters whose choices are up for grabs, it could be hard for the Democrats to try to pick off either Smith or Van Drew.

‘Gerrymandering is a problem’

“I think once Chris Smith retires in the 4th, Democrats will have a real shot to flip that district. But he has been in that district so long that voting for him is like brushing your teeth. It’s like a habit that once it sets in is difficult to break,” Hale said. Smith is in the midst of his 21st term and is the third most senior member of the House.

But it will be even harder for Republicans to make many inroads into districts beyond, potentially, Malinowsi’s and Kim’s

“The tough part for the GOP is no map can neutralize the fundamental advantage of 1.1 million more registered Democrats across the state,” Rasmussen said. “We don’t do it this way, but just as a thought exercise, if we evenly divided the state’s 2.55 million Democrats and 1.46 million Republicans into 12 districts, we’d start with a 100,000 registered-voter advantage for Democrats in every district.  That’s a big deal when you consider about 400,000 people voted in each of our Congressional races in 2020.”

The future of Malinowski, Kim and other House members could depend on how their parties’ delegations to the New Jersey Redistricting Commission redraw the boundaries of their districts. Using 2020 census data, along with the results of past elections, the six Democrats and six Republicans on the commission will try to map out areas to give their members a better chance of winning next year.

That’s one of the problems with New Jersey’s redistricting process, said Philip Hensley of the League of Women Voters of New Jersey, who called the state’s process “deeply flawed.” The state’s redistricting commission comprises six Democrats and six Republicans named by party leaders and one independent member either chosen by the partisans or chosen by the state Supreme Court from candidates recommended by each party’s members.

“Partisan political interests prevail in the line-drawing process,” Hensley said. “Gerrymandering is a problem … The commission structure allows politicians to pick their voters and draw districts based on partisan and political purposes, rather than draw districts based on public input and objective, nonpartisan criteria.”

Hale acknowledged the shortcomings but said New Jersey’s process is better than those of states where the legislature or governor have near total control over the mapping.

“We have a process that is influenced but not totally controlled by politics,” he said. “Many states give the governor almost total say in the decisions; we are better than that.”

What about an independent commission?

Hensley said New Jersey should adopt a truly independent citizens’ commission as California and other states have done to draw their district maps. In the meantime, given the current process is the one that will be used this year, he called on the 13th commission member to exercise greater authority over the process.

“The independent member could commit to holding many more public meetings, and require that the commission meet its mandate to consider map submissions from the public,” he said. “The independent member could further commit to only considering maps that meet nonpartisan line drawing standards. Specifically, the independent member and the commission should commit to drawing maps that ensure that New Jersey’s communities of color have an equal opportunity to participate in the political process, that preserve communities of interest, and are not drawn to advantage or disadvantage any political party or candidate.”

READ: Remapping New Jersey’s congressional districts

WATCH: Malinowski failed to disclose profits from stock trades during pandemic, AP reports

READ: With members set, what’s next for redistricting?

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