Rep. Tom Malinowski is vulnerable in redistricting and his supporters know it.
That’s why dozens of pro-Malinowski witnesses have turned out to testify at otherwise sleepy meetings of the New Jersey Redistricting Commission. They’re desperately trying to prevent him from becoming a sacrificial lamb to save other, increasingly nervous Democratic incumbents.
It’s an aggressive approach that’s alienated some in his party. But Malinowski, one of the nation’s most endangered incumbents, doesn’t have much choice. In an election year where Democrats are facing headwinds to keep their five-seat House majority, the New Jersey congressman has the task of convincing Democrats on the commission to fight for every one of their incumbents in redistricting instead of cutting their losses by setting him up for defeat.
Yet his razor-thin 2020 reelection victory against Republican state Sen. Tom Kean Jr., Democratic jitters about the current political environment, Kean’s ties to Republicans on the redistricting panel and a scandal involving his own stock trades make Malinowski, who is seeking a third term, an obvious candidate to get thrown under the bus.
Malinowski, who represents central New Jersey’s 7th District, is likely facing a rematch next year against Kean, the scion of a centuries-old political dynasty whom he defeated in 2020 by a little over 1 percentage point — the closest reelection margin of any Democratic House member in the country.
“Making our district safe for the scion of any political dynasty would be unacceptable to the citizens of NJ7,” Malinowski supporter Miriam Kohler, a district resident, said during a virtual Redistricting Commission meeting on Nov. 20. “Please do not sacrifice us.”
No other member of New Jersey’s congressional delegation has had anywhere near the kind of turnout from supporters at redistricting meetings as Malinowski. That’s annoyed some of the Democratic commissioners, according to two sources with knowledge of the process who believe Malinowski is coordinating it.
The Malinowski camp denies that.
New Jersey’s congressional boundaries are drawn every 10 years by a 13-member commission made up of six Democrats, six Republicans and a tie-breaking member appointed by the state Supreme Court: This year, the tie-breaker is former state Supreme Court Justice John Wallace, Jr., a registered Democrat. The commission has until the second week of January to come up with a map of 12 roughly equal districts to reflect the state’s shifting population.
Although Republicans won the process in 2011, drawing a map that at first split deep blue New Jersey’s U.S. House delegation, 6-6, the then Republican commissioners did not anticipate voter backlash to former President Donald Trump.
The delegation shifted slightly in Democrats’ favor after the 2016 election before Democrats secured an 11-1 majority after the 2018 midterms. Democrats now hold an 11-2 majority after Rep. Jeff Van Drew (R-N.J.) switched parties.
The 7th District, a wealthy and well-educated swath of Central Jersey, was considered safe for Republicans until the 2018 Trump midterm, when Malinowski defeated 10-year GOP incumbent Leonard Lance — something Malinowski’s supporters have repeatedly stressed during their testimony before the commission.
“Folks should not be penalized for the work we did to motivate our neighbors,” Malinowski supporter Lacey Rzeszowski told the commission during an in-person meeting on Nov. 13. “I implore the commission to make every effort to maintain the fair and competitive nature of this district.”
The pro-Malinowski witnesses have zeroed in on the same message: Keep the district largely intact while adding a couple of Democratic-leaning towns from Union County to shore up its need to add thousands of residents. Ten years ago, they argue, the district was drawn to favor a Republican incumbent, but has since become ultra-competitive and should stay that way.
Democrats carried the district in the last two presidential elections — Hillary Clinton by 1 percentage point in 2016 and Joe Biden by 10 points in 2020.
Still, Democrats know Malinowski is likely their most troubled member in the 2022 midterms.
Months after his close 2020 reelection victory, Malinowski came under media scrutiny for failing to disclose hundreds of thousands of dollars of stock trades and short-selling stocks.
Realizing Malinowski’s potential vulnerability and amid rumors Democrats would be willing to sacrifice him to shore up other Democrats in swing districts, all six Democratic county chairs from the 7th District issued a preemptive statement in May, declaring “the idea that we would be willing to give away Congressman Malinowski’s seat for 10 years is categorically absurd.”
Since then, however, Malinowski’s fate has not improved.
Days after the May press release, Republicans named their redistricting commissioners — two of whom were appointed by Kean, the outgoing state Senate minority leader who will challenge Malinowski again in 2022. The Republicans’ redistricting executive director, Harrison Neely, was an adviser to Kean’s 2020 campaign against Malinowski.
At the same time, the stock trading scandal has advanced, with the Office of Congressional Ethics finding there was “substantial reason to believe” Malinowski violated federal conflict of interest rules or laws, and news broke scrutiny by the House Committee on Ethics. That’s led Republicans to fan the prospect of Democratic infighting.
“Scandal-ridden Tom Malinowski’s penchant for profiting off a pandemic makes him an easy target for New Jersey Democrats to sacrifice in the redistricting process,” National Republican Congressional Committee spokesperson Camille Gallon said in a statement.
Then last month, New Jersey’s gubernatorial and state legislative elections turned out to be closer than most expected, with Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy winning reelection narrowly and the Democrats’ state legislative majorities shrinking, portending tough midterm reelections for three other New Jersey Democrats who since 2016 flipped GOP-held seats: Josh Gottheimer, Andy Kim and Mikie Sherrill. All of their districts voted for Murphy’s Republican challenger, Jack Ciattarelli.
But it was a tweet by Cook Political Report Editor Dave Wasserman, an expert on redistricting and native of Malinowski’s district, that set off the current pushback by Malinowski’s supporters.
Wasserman drew a map of what the district could look like, based on what he’s heard from people involved in the redistricting process. According to that map, the 7th District would include all of northwestern New Jersey, drawing in some of the most conservative areas of Sherrill and Gottheimer’s districts while Kim would lose his district’s reddest region.
“Dems I’ve spoken w/ now believe they would be lucky to emerge w/ a 9D-3R split in 2022 (vs. 10D-2R now), raising the chances they cut a deal w/ GOP commissioners to throw #NJ07 Rep. Tom Malinowski (D) under the bus to shore up #NJ03, #NJ05 and #NJ11,” Wasserman tweeted.
In a statement, Malinowski spokesperson Naree Ketudat discounted the speculation by Wasserman.
“We trust the process and everyone involved,” he said. “CD07 residents have been bombarded with political reporting all year speculating that their district is on the chopping block. These public hearings are their opportunity to respond and they are taking it.”
But a source close to Malinowski who spoke on condition of anonymity said Wasserman’s tweet “burst the whole thing into flame,” though they downplayed the level of coordination by the congressman’s office with those who have gone before the redistricting commission, saying supporters had asked how they could help, “and we explained to them that you can testify.”
POLITICO reached out to some of the Democrats involved in the redistricting process but all declined to comment publicly. Privately, however, they expressed annoyance at what they perceived as Malinowski flooding the meetings with sympathetic witnesses who often repeated the same points. They also denied there was any plan to sacrifice the congressman.
The redistricting process is expected to come to a head this month, when the commissioners will hole up at a yet-to-be determined venue to draw district lines.
Wasserman said in a phone interview that he doubts the final map for the 7th District will look like the one he drew, but it’s “the basic architecture of a plan that would essentially sacrifice Malinowski.”
“The redistricting commission historically has been more about protecting individual incumbents than a pure partisan calculation,” he said. “There are other Democratic incumbents who have close allies on the commission. Malinowski has never really been a machine Democrat. And in this instance he could be penalized for that.”