Polls open as Republicans seek return to power in D.C.
Polls opened Tuesday at 6 a.m. in New Jersey, where some Democrats are on the defense as the GOP fights to win back control of Congress. (Daniella Heminghaus for New Jersey Monitor)
Polling places throughout the state threw open their doors Tuesday, setting the stage for an election that will decide control of Congress in the latter half of President Joe Biden’s first term.
New congressional maps adopted last December have pushed the state’s two Republican-held congressional districts safely out of competitive range, and four of New Jersey’s Democratic House incumbents have been left playing defense as voters nationally warm to the prospect of a GOP Congress.
Political observers believe Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-07) is the likeliest to feel voters’ ire. The two-term Democrat faces a rematch challenge against former state Sen. Tom Kean Jr., whose 2020 campaign in this district fell just one point short of flipping the seat to the GOP.
But this time, Malinowski faces further headwinds. The congressman was the only Democratic House incumbent in a New Jersey race to see his district grow more Republican. His electorate now includes all of heavily Republican Warren County plus parts of equally red Sussex County.
He’s also likely to face some voter backlash over stock trades the congressman made during the pandemic. Despite reminders from staff, Malinowski failed to meet disclosure deadlines for hundreds of trades between January 2019 and March 2021.
Malinowski has insisted the late filings were an oversight, adding they were made by his broker. He has since put his assets into a blind trust, but an ethics investigation over the late filings, one his opponent has leveraged in television ads, is ongoing.
While that controversy is likely to impact the race somewhat, it may take a backseat to broader economic issues Republicans have sought to center in their campaign messaging, said Ashley Koning, director of Rutgers University’s Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling.
“We’ve been talking about this a lot with abortion. It’s one of those things that’s faded somewhat into the background,” she said. “Obviously, any reminder of it can certainly hurt Malinowski.”
Kean’s campaign has largely eschewed New Jersey press and has instead leaned on the candidate’s name recognition and television ads to make the case to voters not captured by the campaign’s ground operation. Kean is the son of former New Jersey Gov. Tom Kean Sr.
Malinowski has outspent Kean more than two-to-one, disbursing $6.9 million through Oct. 19 to the challenger’s $3.2 million. More than $5.6 million in outside spending in Kean’s favor will help bridge that gap, but money spent by PACs and similar groups buys less airtime than money spent by candidates.
Kim v. Healey
Rep. Andy Kim (D-03) faces a challenge from Republican Bob Healey Jr., a former punk rock frontman turned millionaire co-chairman of the Viking Yacht Company and related firms.
Kim came into the race with a cash advantage and a newly drawn district that shed heavily Republican Ocean County to stretch north into heavily Democratic Mercer County and parts of Monmouth County.
The new lines lend Kim an obvious advantage, but turnout in Burlington County could again decide who holds the 3rd District.
Republicans held full control of Burlington County before Donald Trump became president. Under his tenure, Democrats won every county race there, a pattern that held through 2021’s Trump-free elections.
Now, the party holds all five seats on the county commissioner board and all three of its constitutional officer posts, but it remains to be seen whether Burlington Democrats will turn out in sufficient numbers without Trump at the top of the ticket.
“The question always in that area is ‘is it blue enough,’” said Ross Baker, a distinguished political science professor at Rutgers University, noting Healey was among the stronger Republican challengers in the state.
This year’s race is the first without Trump as president for Kim, who won his first term in 2018, a wave election that saw Democratic turnout soar in Burlington.
Like other Democratic incumbents, Kim has outraised and outspent his challenger. Through Oct. 19, he spent nearly $5.2 million to Healey’s $3.8 million and had $2 million left in his war chest, more than 10 times what Healey had in reserves.
But, like Kean, Healey has had outside money at his back, including more than $2.1 million in independent expenditures from Garden State Advance, a super PAC funded almost entirely by the challenger’s mother.
Gottheimer faces Pallotta again
Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-05) is the other Democratic House incumbent opposed by a repeat challenger, but there’s been little to suggest Gottheimer is facing the kind of danger Malinowski is.
Investment banker Frank Pallotta is seeking the 5th District seat for a second time this year following an eight-point loss against Gottheimer in 2020. Last year’s redistricting made the 5th a more Democratic district.
Gottheimer, the centrist co-chair of the House Problem Solvers Caucus and a prolific fundraiser, holds a staggering cash lead. He reported raising $8 million through Oct. 19, to Pallotta’s $922,696, and spending just $2.8 million.
Gottheimer had $13.7 million in reserves on Oct. 19, and the comparatively paltry spending suggests the incumbent doesn’t feel pressed by his challenger, who spent only $682,561.
Though he lent his campaign $1.4 million for his 2020 bid, Pallotta has largely kept his personal wealth out of the 2022 race. He’s loaned his campaign $105,000 this cycle, but most of that money was lent during his primary campaign.
“I’ve seen Gottheimer’s stuff and I’ve seen anti-Pallotta stuff, but I haven’t heard anything from (Pallotta) from his own campaign,” Baker said. “Gottheimer is just such an indefatigable campaigner. He always runs scared. It seems like the bluer his district gets, the more scared he runs.”
Pallotta has attacked Gottheimer over the $10,000 cap on state and local tax deductions imposed by congressional Republicans’ 2017 tax plan. The cap disproportionately affects wealthy filers in high-tax states like New Jersey.
Every Democratic New Jersey House incumbent in a competitive district campaigned on repealing the cap, but those efforts were stymied by House progressives who feared allowing uncapped deductions would shift wealthy filers’ tax burdens onto more disadvantaged residents.
Gottheimer, meanwhile, has sought to tie his opponent to Trump, noting Pallotta in 2020 declined to disavow the Oath Keepers, a far-right militia group whose members stormed the U.S. Capitol in a bid to stop the certification of President Joe Biden’s victory on Jan. 6, a message repeated in Gottheimer’s television ads.
Democratic Rep. Mikie Sherril’s (D-11) campaign for a third term in Congress has drawn relatively little attention despite the district’s historical bent toward the GOP. Former Passaic County assistant prosecutor Paul DeGroot could be the reason.
The challenger has brought in little money, and the scant attention he’s drawn from national Republicans has not translated into resources of any kind.
Throughout the campaign, DeGroot has raised only $661,270, and most of that money’s been spent, leaving him with just $102,902 in reserves.
Still, Sherrill has burned through much of her cash reserves, spending $7.5 million to defend her seat. But even outspending her challenger 15 times over, she had more than $1.5 million banked on Oct. 19.
At the same time, PACs and other groups have come to the incumbent’s defense, pouring millions of dollars into a race that Sherrill appears likely to win.
“It’s just a sign. Even in a place like the 11th, Democrats are scared,” Koning said. “I think taking note of what happened at the tail end of the gubernatorial (campaign) would be wise, and maybe that is something that Democrats in the state have been doing in these final days and weeks.”
Last year, GOP gubernatorial candidate Jack Ciattarelli fell roughly 3 points shy of ousting Murphy, a tighter margin than polls had predicted. Ciattarelli was buoyed by a surge in Republican turnout that won Republicans seven seats in the legislature, their biggest legislative victory in decades.
Republicans had held the 11th District for more than 40 years before Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen’s retirement opened the way for a Sherrill victory in 2018, and the district has since shed heavily Republican Sussex County to spread further into Democrat-dominated Essex County.
But the advantage isn’t insurmountable, and Democrats are likely to have more pressing problems than a single congressional seat if Republican voters rise to meet the challenge.
The district should be a “safe bet for Democrats on election night,” Koning said, but “if for some reason Sherrill loses the 11th, that obviously is a signal for an absolutely horrific night” for the party.
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