Democratic Rep. Tom Malinowski has represented New Jersey’s 7th Congressional District for four years. Yet when he knocks on doors in Rahway, one of the few blue strongholds of his district, most people have no idea who he is.

On a recent door-knocking trip, an active voter who served on the town’s zoning board almost shooed him away, because she thought he was a window salesman.

The confusion stemmed from changes to Malinowski’s district. Rahway was moved from the 10th Congressional District into Malinowski’s 7th District in 2021, during the redrawing of district boundaries prompted by the Census every 10 years.

“Right now your congressional representative is Don Payne Jr.,” Malinowski told Nancy Dean, the voter. He’s had to explain the same to several others. “[Under the old map], you're in a district that is like 90% Democratic.”

Now, Rahway is in the most contested battleground in New Jersey.

“It’s one of the few [districts] left in America that could swing either way,” Malinowski continued.

Rahway is one of the few Democratic towns that was added to Malinowski’s district. Overall, he lost more Democrats than he gained. An extra 30,000 registered Republicans were also moved into the district. That makes for a tough scenario for the incumbent, especially because he defeated Republican challenger Tom Kean Jr. by only 5,329 votes when they last faced off in 2020.

Yet a recent poll conducted for the Malinowski campaign found the race is dead-even, the campaign says. There haven’t yet been polls for the race released by major polling groups.

Both camps are trying to stake claims on moderate and independent voters, and are working to get their own parties’ voters to turn out. For Kean, that means little or no engagement with media, and few widely advertised events. For Malinowski, that means convincing middle-of-the-road voters Kean is too extreme, in lockstep with a party that’s reshaped itself around former President Donald Trump — while reminding Democrats control of the House is on the line.

Despite the tough numbers Malinowski is facing, he said this year is actually easier, because the Democratic-controlled Congress got a lot done.

“I can go back to every voter in my district and say that Congress has delivered on the issues that they sent me in Washington to take care of: lower prescription drug prices, lower health care costs, an infrastructure bill, the CHIPS Act to bring manufacturing back home to America, the first gun violence prevention bill in three decades,” he said. “This has been — despite all the gridlock and partisanship — the most productive Congress, probably, since the 1960s.”

This is Kean’s fourth run for Congress, and his best chance yet. He doesn’t only benefit from those extra Republican voters. It’s a midterm election, and those are historically precarious for a sitting president’s party.

Kean also picks up support by virtue of his name. His father, Tom Kean Sr., is a popular former governor who carries the banner of moderate Republicans in New Jersey, a once-dominant but now dying breed.

Too far right?

Kean Jr. has long been more conservative than his father, and now he is trying to straddle the sharp divide within the Republican Party, in a moderate district. He has a webpage that cannot be found on his campaign site unless a visitor has the direct address — it’s not in the navigation or linked from any other page — outlining views that appeal to the right wing of the Republican Party.

“Tom is a fierce defender of the sanctity of life, fighting every step of the way to protect the unborn from egregious abortion laws proposed in New Jersey, and will continue to do so in Congress,” the site reads. That’s even though Kean describes himself as pro-choice.

His public-facing website sticks to broad statements about fiscal issues. He highlights a package of legislation from his time as state Senate Republican leader, which he describes as based on four pillars: “Spending that reflects your priorities, better ways to govern, long-term strategies for an affordable state, growing our way to a better future.”

The site also says he would “end wasteful spending to break the back of inflation, promote American industry to open up supply chains, support middle class tax relief, [and] back energy independence to lower gas prices.”

During Kean’s successful primary in June, he distributed literature that said he was a conservative who had Trump’s back. During a recent forum, when he was asked by moderators about the Jan. 6, 2021 riot at the U.S. Capitol, he gave a mixed answer. He said if he had been in Congress, he would have voted to certify the election results and to create the investigative commission. But then his answer became a bit more squidgy.

“How do we understand what happened? But again, how do we ensure that people have faith in the integrity of the elections?” Kean said. “I mean, there are many different times when people have expressed concern regarding the history of an election result or anything else. We need to ensure that we find that common ground on a bipartisan basis.”

Kean’s supporters, including one of the most outspoken moderate Republicans in the New Jersey State Senate, say Kean isn’t too far to the right for the district.

“Tom's a balanced individual and I think he would represent the district well,” said state Sen. Jon Bramnick (R-Westfield), who was Kean’s running mate for many years and represents a portion of the district. “And I don't think he's an extremist in any, in any form of the word.”

Bramnick has spoken out many times against Donald Trump, but he won’t criticize his good friend for not doing so. But some Republicans and independents are upset that Kean hasn’t called out Trump.

“I think there are wide diversions between him and typical center-right Republicans in the 7th District,” said Alan Steinberg, who worked for George W. Bush and now writes for InsiderNJ, a political news site. “You don't hear him speaking at all on the threat to democracy that was exhibited on Jan. 6.”

Steinberg himself is one of those center-right, old-school New Jersey Republicans, but has broken with the GOP over Trump. He doesn’t doubt Kean has a significant lead among registered members of the party: “Most Republicans who have been Republicans throughout their adult lives don't have the sense of revulsion that I have of the current Republican Party.”

The importance of abortion

But the largest block of voters in the district are unaffiliated. Kean may face a problem with those voters on his position on abortion, which has catapulted to the top of the list of issues after abortion rights were overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court.

“It is the same kind of outrage that I saw when the [Affordable Care Act] was going to be dismantled, because this is a health care issue and Republican women get pregnant as frequently as Democratic women,” said Marci Bandelli, a Democratic activist from Westfield. She got involved in politics after Trump’s election, and worked to elect Malinowski in 2018.

Kean seems to agree about the importance of the abortion to the race: His campaign had not responded to multiple requests from Gothamist for interviews, but Kean himself called the day after the candidate flubbed an answer on abortion at a recent forum, confusing those in attendance.

When Kean called Gothamist himself to clear things up, he said he meant to say he supports abortion up to 20 weeks — and after that point, would allow it only in cases such as rape or incest, or to protect the mother’s health. He said he describes himself as pro-choice, but voted against against a 2022 New Jersey bill that codified abortion as a right because it didn’t bar late-term abortions.

Malinowski has been a vocal proponent of abortion rights. He’s recently opposed federal legislation to restrict abortion, telling fellow House representatives in September: “Let me tell you where the overwhelming majority of folks in New Jersey stand. We know abortion is a painful and personal issue for many families. That is precisely why we want and trust women to decide, not the government.”

He’s also supported enshrining the constitutional protections of Roe vs. Wade in federal law, and this year co-sponsored a measure to keep states from punishing people who go out of state for abortions. He additionally co-sponsored a measure to protect access to contraceptives.

Turning out voters

Other key issues in the race are infrastructure and transportation, especially for the suburban communities in the district closest to New York City. Malinowski sits on the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, and he worked with a bipartisan group to obtain funding for the new Hudson rail tunnel, known as Gateway.

Kean also says he supports funding for the new Husdon rail tunnel — but Bandelli, the activist, said Kean should have fought for a tunnel that was canceled more than a decade ago by then-Gov. Chris Christie, even though it had federal funding.

“He really disappointed his constituents when Chris Christie squashed the ARC Tunnel project,” Bandelli said. “He didn't do anything to rescue that project. He wasn't talking to voters about it. He didn't fight for his district. And if you are not going to fight for commuters, who are Republicans, Democrats and independents, what are you going to fight for?”

For any campaign, turning out voters is key — but it’s even more important in non-presidential year elections, when turnout is lower. Republicans appeared to be more energized in the early days of the campaign, but political analysts say they’re seeing more Democratic enthusiasm.

“I think we're seeing a change in the way people are viewing the president and his party,” said Micah Rasmussen, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University. “And I think we're seeing that in his approval rating picking up as well, so I would say that maybe these surges are happening at exactly the right time for Democrats.”

This post has been updated to correct the spelling of Tom Kean's name in one instance.