In New Jersey, as in all 50 US States, the Congressional seats are up for grabs this election season. New Jersey has some races of particular interest to keep an eye on, as the hyper-polarized electorate will seek to shape the second-half of the Biden Administration with the electoral outcome this November. With Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell seeming gloomy as to whether or not Republicans will gain a strong hold on the Senate, the House of Representatives is unquestionably competitive. Congressional Districts 1, 2, 3, 5, 7, and 11 are worthy of the attention of Garden State politicos, wonks, and the civically invested public-at-large.
Congressional District 1:
Incumbent Congressman Donald Norcross defeated Democrat primary challenger Mario DeSantis with a huge margin of 77.9% to 22.1%, going on to face Republican Claire Gustafson, whom he locked horns with in 2020, winning 62.5% to 37.5%. Congressman Norcross is the family’s extension into the federal government, whereas his brother, George Norcross III, is arguably the most powerful South Jersey Democratic boss, with Camden as the seat of his party fiefdom.
Donald Norcross has been in Congress for seven years, having previously served in the New Jersey State Senate representing LD 5. Before he served in elected office, Norcross worked with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and also served as president of the Southern New Jersey American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations. In other words, he was firmly a union man, and the unions represent a key component of the Norcross political network. Former State Senator Stephen Sweeney, for example, was an ironworker.
Gustafson, embarking on her second crusade against Norcross, has defined herself as “unbought” and looking to break the back of a power cartel controlling the district—namely, the Norcross brothers themselves. “Unapologetically Republican,” as she said, Gustafson does not have a political background per se, but rather, the Collingswood grandmother hails from a military family and made her career in the private sector with retail and clothing. As far as Republican positions go, she supports locking down the southern border with a wall and does not support abortion, but she recognizes that in certain cases such as rape and when the mother’s life is in peril, it should be an option available. That puts Gustafson somewhere in the moderate Republican camp, which is key if she wants to gain traction in the Norcross Democrat stronghold.
Gustafson has slammed the Norcrosses and how they benefitted from the Economic Opportunity Act.
As with many Republican candidacies taking on entrenched Democratic incumbents, Gustafson defined herself as the outsider and the underdog looking to take down a long-established figure which is “part of the problem” for the politically dissatisfied.
While Norcross’ position is likely secure for another term, there are cracks spreading in their political foundations. The region has reddened and the highest profile case of all, the fall of Steve Sweeney to Republican political novice Ed Durr, deprived George Norcross of one of his strongest allies in state government. This could be an optimistic sign for Gustafson and Republicans in the district, but it may have the counter-effect of spurring organization-tested Democrats in Norcrossland to work that much harder, fill in the cracks, and keep the sand from slipping out from their foundation. Sweeney appearing on the ballot for governor in 2025 could potentially revitalize Norcross-backed power in the Garden State.
If Norcross does defeat Gustafson again, as he well may, it remains to be seen whether or not he can do so with another 62% or if he will have to content himself with an eroded majority.
Congressional District 2:
Encompassing about half of South Jersey, CD 2 is a diverse constituency, flanked by Salem and Atlantic
City, with the rural municipalities in between, anchored on the shore towns of Cape May. This district may be better described as “conservative” than “Republican” in the sense that the values and rhetoric of Congressman Jeff Van Drew have returned him to office, despite having been a Democrat succeeding long-time Republican Congressman Frank LoBiondo. Van Drew was one of two House Democrats to vote against impeaching former President Donald Trump and the next day, December 19, 2019, announced he turned in his D card for an R. Despite a flurry of attacks from the Democratic Party, Van Drew remained solidly in place, representing CD 2 and enjoying a warm relationship with Trump.
When Amy Kennedy sought to dislodge the “turncoat” Van Drew in 2020, no amount of Democratic backing, nor her married name’s affiliation with the 35th president, could push the incumbent out. The battle was a tense one, but Van Drew came out on top, taking 51.9% to Kennedy’s 46.2%, but it reaffirmed CD 2’s conservativism that transcended party lines.
This time, Van Drew is facing Tim Alexander, a former Detective-Captain for the Atlantic County
Prosecutor’s Office and Major Trials Prosecutor for the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office before going into private practice. Van Drew, a committed Trump supporter, who has stuck by the former president through thick-and-thin, was recently discussed as a potential vice-presidential running mate should Trump decide to run for office again.
As it stands, Van Drew’s position seems secure to defeat Alexander. Democrats were unable to viably capitalize on Van Drew’s arguably most salient point of weakness—when he switched parties. With that moment gone and Van Drew both a solid and known feature in national Republican circles as well as the rank-and-file at home, the battle will be increasingly uphill for Democrats in a reddening South Jersey. Redistricting helped Van Drew, too. Indeed, Van Drew, whatever faults he may have, has paid his dues and worked within the system, pulling his way up the ranks and doing the work necessary to lay down a solid foundation of political power and influence. The parties might have been in an uproar over Van Drew’s defection—that is to say, to the delight of the GOP which had been on the back foot in New Jersey for decades—but the voters demonstrated that Van Drew is their representative, not so much the label.
Van Drew has been a vocal critic of coronavirus policies and recently called for Dr. Anthony Fauci, along with the Biden administration itself, to be investigated. In a statement, he said, “We must get to the bottom of what role China played in the world-wide outbreak of COVID-19, how much Dr. Fauci knew about its origins, and what kind of research the National Institute of Health (NIH) were conducting in Wuhan, China. Dr. Fauci resigning will not stop Congress from finally getting answers to critical questions for the American public.”
While the United States has unfortunately made the pandemic itself into a hyper-partisan matter, providing potential ammunition for talking points, the abolition of restrictions has taken some of the heat off of the viral kettle. For the most part, this disempowers Democrats but continues to provide embers for Republicans to stoke. Whether or not Alexander will be able to make significant gains has yet to be seen, but it may be a long slog before a Democrat reclaims CD 2. As with all congressional races, the national atmosphere will also play something of a factor. While Democrats tend to be more optimistic than they were a few months ago, when Joe Biden’s popularity was at a nadir, Republicans are on the march and pressing hard to defend their current seats and flip others.
Congressional District 3:
Incumbent Democratic Congressman Andy Kim is seeking re-election for a third term in the ultra-
competitive district. In 2020, Kim bested Republican David Richter, 53.2% to 45.5%. Two years, an insurrection attempt, and a global pandemic later, Kim now faces Bob Healey, representing CD 3 Republicans’ perceived shift away from hard-MAGAism towards a more civil and less explosive brand of what Italians call “menefreghismo,” or roughly translated as the embodiment of “I don’t give a damn.” Healey defeated Ian Smith by a large margin in the Republican primary. The latter gained national attention by refusing to close the Atilis Gym in Bellmawr and defying Governor Murphy’s lockdown orders, becoming a lightning rod of anti-government defiance. Smith also carried baggage that even the most ardent MAGA Republican would find hard to turn a blind eye to. Smith had been charged 15 years ago with causing the death of a college student and possession of marijuana. He pleaded guilty to second-degree vehicular homicide.
Fast forward to 2022 and the incendiary Smith’s campaign woes began to pile on fast. In March he was pulled over and arrested for reckless driving, refusing a breathalyzer test for the police. Apparently telling the police that he was running for Congress wasn’t enough to get him out of the jam, either. To add further fuel to the fire, his running mate running for Burlington County Commissioner was charged with driving while intoxicated not long after.
Smith was beaten handily, with Healey taking 52.8% to Smith’s 38.3% in the primary. Nicholas Ferrara took almost 9% but it would not have been enough to give Smith the edge had he not split the ballot. Healey is a millionaire head of a yacht company, is proud of his charitable work in Sierra Leone, and enjoys historical reenactment for a hobby. He is active in conservation and children’s welfare through equestrian and educational foundations, and is a relief for Republicans who want a more, well, conservative kind of conservative.
This, of course, makes him a more formidable choice for going up against Andy Kim. Kim has plenty of federal credentials of his own, having worked for the State Department, Office of the Secretary of Defense, and as a national security advisor to former president Barack Obama. After the January 6th Insurrection, Kim was photographed picking up some of the debris left behind, an image that went viral. Later, the Smithsonian asked him to donate the non-descript blue suit he wore that day and when he cast a vote to impeach President Trump.
When Kim and Healey met to debate at a forum hosted by the Chamber of Commerce of Southern New Jersey, the two had something remarkable in how unremarkable it was—they discussed policy and didn’t call each other names. There was no scorched earth, only sparring of ideas. Healey has tried to cast Kim as a Biden rubberstamp. The incumbent also does not generally electrify audiences, which is not an indicator of ability to govern, but plays a factor in electoral showmanship, especially when the opposition party seems to have the momentum nationwide.
Thanks to redistricting, CD 3 is a bit more blue, which will benefit Kim provided that Democrats on the more local levels are also supportive of their congressman’s re-election endeavors. Republican intra-party feuding within Ocean County, a GOP bastion, might play a factor in the congressional race if it depresses Republican turn-out. Regardless, redistricting is likely to benefit the incumbent and could potentially be the lifeline that keeps Kim in office in the face of a broader Republican comeback.
As far as Kim and Healey themselves, whether or not the civility will last has yet to be seen, but the incumbent and challenger were able to discuss not only what made them different, but also how they were the same. This is not to say that CD 3 is a mutual admiration society on display, and New Jersey politics is incapable of being anything other than rough. Nevertheless, given the overall atmosphere, the competitiveness of CD 3, due to the myriad number of factors from domestic policy, economic uncertainty, and the general direction of the country, this race is critical. The rejection of Smith in particular offers some hope that whoever the winner is, someone both respectful and worthy of respect will represent the district in Congress.
Congressional District 5:
Republican Frank Pallotta has had a host of positions in the world of business and finance, getting his foundation in Goldman Sachs (hello, Jon Corzine and Phil Murphy), Credit Suisse, Morgan Stanley, and several firms since then. He founded Steel Curtain Capital in 2008.
Pallotta ran against Congressman Josh Gottheimer in 2020, where Gottheimer took 53.2% to Pallotta’s 45.6%. Pallotta defied the Bergen County Republicans’ choice of Nick De Gregorio, and emerged the winner of the 2022 primary, taking 50.3%
Now, up for round two, Pallotta says he has the name recognition that will carry him across the finish line in November.
Gottheimer has one of the largest war-chests of congressional candidates in the country, with $14 million ending cash on hand January-June, 2022, according to the Federal Election Commission. Pallotta has $64,056 for the same period.
Money will not ultimately decide the victor of CD 5’s race, but it does allow for Gottheimer to saturate
the field unlike any other depending on how his campaign unfolds. Pallotta cannot outspend him, but he will try to pick apart his Democratic opponent’s record and capitalize on the conservative nature of the district.
Once again, however, redistricting plays to the advantage of the incumbent. Gottheimer has long tried to define himself as an independent-minded congressman and prides himself on his role within the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus. He also expends considerable energy in being a visible congressman in the district, frequently appearing in front of the camera and making his presence felt among constituents. Since CD 5 has historically been a conservative district—he took over from Republican Scott Garret who served as congressman from 2003-2017—Gottheimer has necessarily had to present himself as a hard centrist. This, in turn, has made him the target of a number of progressive organizations in New Jersey, which he has rebuffed and dismissed as too far left, or unrealistic. His offices are frequently host to protests made up of fellow Democrats carrying signs and playing guitars, not Republicans complaining he is “woke”. Since redistricting came into effect, however, he has lost some of the redder constituencies in north and north-west New Jersey, potentially taking some of the pressure off and giving Pallotta less of a playing field to knock him down.
“No SALT, no deal,” Gottheimer said, as he sought to leverage President Biden’s Build Back Better plan and the massive infrastructure investment. That victory died in the Senate and the State And Local Tax deduction is capped at $10,000. Raising it would allow for significant tax relief for New Jerseyans, whose primary complaint about life in the Garden State has almost universally been how expensive it is to live here. With the Inflation Reduction Act looming, Gottheimer and other Democrats did not dig in their heels as before and conceded without SALT action.
Pallotta did not waste time to pounce. “Rep. Gottheimer has abandoned his constituents once again, putting us on the line for Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi’s wildest spending desires,” Pallotta said in a statement. “Either Josh is caving to the radical left, or he never intended to keep his word in the first place. I’m not sure which is worse.”
While Josh might enjoy a slightly bluer district in the next election, characterizing him with “the radical left” is a stretch. If that were true, would progressives demonstrate against their congressman to the point of even showing up at his home and getting arrested, as happened last autumn?
Congressional District 7:
The battle of all New Jersey congressional battles is being fought in CD 7, where this competitive race
may well have one of the strongest influences on the House makeup in the post-mid-terms. Malinowski, something of a sacrificial lamb on the part of the Democratic Party, has been tenaciously fighting against former State Senator Tom Kean, Jr. where every vote will count. To Malinowski’s benefit, at least, where a razor-thin margin could tip the outcome either way, independent candidate Veronica Fernandez, a figure left of Malinowski and potentially drawing away much-needed-votes, has withdrawn.
In 2020, when Democrats were able to oust President Donald Trump, no matter how much he denies it, Tom Malinowski did not benefit from the anti-Trump sentiment. Rather, he eked out a hair’s-width win of 50.6% over Tom Kean, Jr.’s 49.4%. Prior to this, Malinowski had beaten Republican Leonard Lance during the 2018 “Blue Wave”—although it was more of a blue ripple showing 51.7% to the incumbent’s 46.7%.
Now, with Republicans feeling energized as an opposition party can be during a midterm with the added political gift of popular irritation thanks to inflation, Malinowski faces Kean again. The incumbent had said that he expects a “landslide” of 1% again this time, acknowledging the challenges he faces in this tight race. Malinowski, unlike many other incumbents, did not benefit from the redistricting, even though it was the Democratic map that was adopted for the current decade. CD 7 is something of a surrendered territory, since some concessions had to be made here and there, even as the parties attempt to gerrymander the state into institutional lockdown. Malinowski has accepted this reality and vowed to fight on anyway.
Tom Kean, Jr., enjoys name recognition since his father, Tom Kean, Sr., had served as governor of New Jersey and Junior had served in Trenton for 21 years. A member of the General Assembly from 2001-2003, he then represented District 21 in the New Jersey Senate until he left office in January of this year.
Media-averse, Kean had his record and cultivated image as he stood against ardent MAGA-Republicans Phil Rizzo, who unsuccessfully challenged Jack Ciattarelli in the 2021 primary, and Assemblyman Erik Peterson. Kean triumphed in the primary with 45.2% of the vote, snuffing out his challengers’ bids as Rizzo took 23.0% and Peterson took 16.1%. Kean may seem insincere to Republican opponents and to Democrats, but as New Jersey’s Republican Party seeks to find itself in the post-Trump world, Kean is, by all accounts, their best chance for flipping the district that had been favorable—albeit just slightly—to a Democratic congressman.
Now, with about ten thousand more Republican voters in the district to contend with, the stage is set for Malinowski—a congressman for all intents and purposes fighting alone for his political career—to make an epic last stand that will either deliver his hoped-for 1% landslide, or catapult Quiet Kean to the national level and rock the metrics of the New Jersey delegation.
Congressional District 11:
Republican Paul DeGroot is looking to oust Congresswoman Mikie Sherrill in the redrawn lines of CD 11. DeGroot bested former Chatham Township Mayor and current Morris County Commissioner Tayfun Selen and Toby Anderson in the primary. DeGroot clawed his way to victory in the primary, beating Selen by 1,299 votes. Characterizing himself as an “America First” Republican, DeGroot has fought back against accusations of being a “RINO” and has assailed Sherrill as an ineffective attorney while he had taken on heavy lifting in his own career. Once an Assistant US District Attorney for New Jersey, Sherrill is a former Navy pilot as well, which typically brings very solid support from the electorate on both sides of the aisle. DeGroot has framed the contest as between an independent, non-politician who is an effective prosecutor against an established politician, one “lock step” with Pelosi, Biden, and Murphy—a sort of unholy Trinity. (The district itself has proven not to be adverse to established politicians, it should be noted. Sherrill is seeking her third-term in congress, having succeeded Rodney P. Frelinghuysen who served as Republican congressman from 1995-2019.) Sherrill, for her part, accused DeGroot of being “lock step” with a Republican “anti-woman agenda” which would ban abortion nationwide.
Regardless of all the smears of synchronized ideological marching, the map has changed from the
previous decade as a result of redistricting. Sherrill’s initial reluctance to back Nancy Pelosi and align with coalitions considered centrist showed the importance of not alienating the conservative and moderate base of the district. Nevertheless, Sherrill is now a firmly reliable Democrat vote in the House and if, as DeGroot says, the district is the most important to flip, doing so would have a notable impact on President Biden advancing his agenda through the legislature. Like Gottheimer, Sherrill did not make SALT a hill to politically die on in the face of the Inflation Reduction Act.
CD 11 has not been a gift to Sherrill in terms of elections, such as neighboring Congressman Bill Pascrell, who has been returned to office time and time again with very comfortable wins. If Sherrill is to retain her seat this November, she will need to actively engage with the voter base and cross swords with DeGroot. To that end, DeGroot has called for a debate with Sherrill, but as of this writing, none has yet taken place.
Within the party ranks itself, Sherrill had no problem ascending to a position of prominence, securing the 2018 primary with 77.4% of the vote. In the general election, however, she won comfortably, but without a landslide, besting Assemblyman Jay Webber with 56.8%.
At Sherrill’s introduction to the House, she and other freshmen Democrat congressmembers were running in favorable climates in 2018, a Trump mid term. Today, Sherrill and her class of candidates are now running in what seems to be a less favorable year for Democrats.
Popular discontent as a result of the coronavirus, the lockdowns, and school restrictions meant that 2020 was a challenge for Democrats across the state, carrying over to the next year, where the least of which was not Governor Phil Murphy himself, nearly toppled by former assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli. Sherrill was challenged by Rosemary Becchi for her first re-election campaign, one which would determine whether or not Sherrill was, in fact, a rising Democratic star, or a flash in the pan. Sherrill managed to pull it out, taking 53.3%, showing that the Republicans, who had ruled for decades prior to Sherrill, were still a force to be reckoned with.
CD 11 is largely anchored on Morris County, a traditionally Republican stronghold, although not as strong as before. With constituencies in Sparta to Harding, Nutley to Wanaque, there are no heavy urban centers to speak of. Primarily suburbs, bedroom communities, and working-class towns, CD 11 is not heavily disposed, by nature, to extremes. This is why Sherrill and DeGroot have tried to characterize the other as out of touch. Calls that DeGroot is a RINO are not necessarily the worst things for someone trying to effectively displace a Democrat. Sherrill, for her part, is conscious of the ideological sensibilities of her constituents, while, like DeGroot, she is trying to play to her party base which is her strength. These factors combined show that the candidates have to walk a tight-rope, talking the talk while also walking a very carefully-planned walk, from a wholly pragmatic point of view. Whether or not Sherrill and DeGroot will actually debate remains to be seen, but it might be advantageous for gaining some of those still on the fence or unsure, a precious and rare commodity in a time when voters’ identities are so heavily entrenched and partisan. Nevertheless, voters are not stone creatures and cannot be taken for granted. The district flipped before and might flip again.