There’s an excellent chance that hours after polls close on Election Night — possibly even days after — voters won’t know who won New Jersey’s most closely watched race.
The 7th Congressional District contest between incumbent Democrat Tom Malinowski and Republican Tom Kean Jr. is expected to be a nail-biter. And while a series of election reforms should smooth the process of reporting results as they become available, mail-in voters still have until 8 p.m. Tuesday to return their ballots. Those ballots can be received as much as six days after Election Day election as well.
Redistricting shifted about 30,000 more Republican voters into a district that Malinowski barely won in 2020, the last time he faced a challenge from Kean. But any lead Kean might have as of late Election Night will likely be narrowed, or possibly reversed, as mail-in votes come in.
As of the end of the day Sunday, Democrats were outpacing Republicans among mail-in voters in the 7th District – about 32,000 to 14,800, according to Associated Press election researcher Ryan Dubiki. Another 10,200 independents had cast mail-in ballots.
Statewide, votes from Democrats were outpacing those from Republicans by more than 3-to-1.
Democrats also showed up more for early in-person voting in the 7th District — nearly 12,000 Democrats had cast early votes in the race, compared to about 9,600 Republicans. Another 7,000 independents had cast early in-person ballots. Democrats outpaced Republicans in early voting Statewide as well by 101,000 to 63,000. Another 49,000 independents voted early, statewide. Early voting ended Sunday.
After the redistricting late last year, prompted by new Census counts, Malinowski is considered particularly vulnerable — though other redrawn district lines helped secure support for Democrats in most parts of the state. There are nearly 207,000 registered Republicans in the 7th District, and fewer than 190,000 registered Democrats. But the district is considered largely moderate, and independents there outnumber voters registered with either party individually — accounting for 214,697 registered voters.
Among the notable features of the race:
- The Malinowski camp has focused its message on abortion, telling voters that Kean would back other Republicans allowing state-level restrictions on abortion or even a national abortion ban. Kean describes himself as pro-choice up to 20 weeks, with allowances after that, though a hard-to-find page on his website takes a more conservative tone, calling him a “fierce defender of the sanctity of life.”
- The Kean camp is focusing its message on inflation, blaming Democrats including Malinowski for spending they say tanked the economy. A Monmouth University poll last month found, at least nationally, inflation far outpaced abortion as a top issue for voters. The Malinowski camp counters the argument by saying Kean is never specific about what he’d cut, or how he’d fight inflation.
- Cultural issues are playing a role in the race overall, with Malinowski defending New Jersey’s sex education standards, which some parents have criticized as too graphic or as introducing children to mature concepts at too young of an age. Kean, on Fox News, described the standards as giving children “exposure to pornography as young as second grade.” However, New Jersey’s standards do not call for lessons about pornography, nor do sample lesson plans that prompted most of the controversy (the sample plans did include drawings of anatomy meant for second-graders).
- While the Malinowski campaign has been readily available to media, Kean has shunned most requests for interviews and not allowed reporters at campaign events.
There has been no independent polling in the race. The Malinowski campaign has said in the weeks leading up to Election Day its internal polling shows the race neck-in-neck.
Mail-in ballots must be postmarked or in a drop box by 8 p.m. on Nov. 8. Secure drop locations are listed here. Voters who requested and were sent mail-in ballots, but show up at the polls anyway will be given provisional ballots, to be counted once election officials confirm they didn’t also vote by mail.
For the first time this year, election offices must publish online the number of mailed ballots that have been received, but not yet counted. The change is meant to mitigate the misperception that large swings in vote totals after Election Day are caused by fraud — and make it clearer that they occur because some mailed ballots are still being counted.
Voters should note their polling places may be different than those they’ve used in past elections because of redistricting prompted by the latest Census count. In some cases, voters may find themselves in different municipal wards or districts than in past years, as well.
Other races to watch
The Cook Political Report rates NJ-03, where incumbent Democrat Andy Kim is facing a challenge from Republican Bob Healy, as "lean Democratic.” That signals a contest, though one Kim has strong odds of winning. The district includes most of Burlington County and portions of Mercer and Monmouth Counties. Kim has focused his advertisements on his votes to cap senior prescription costs, and on Healey’s anti-abortion stance, NJ Spotlight News notes.
The NJ-05 race, where incumbent Democrat Josh Gottheimer is facing a challenge from Frank Pallotta, is listed "likely Democrat" — meaning the race isn't considered competitive, but could still become so. The district contains most of Bergen County, and parts of Passaic and Sussex counties. Gotthemier benefited from redistricting, with more Democrats moved into his territory. The same messaging dynamic plays out in that race as in the other races — the Democrat is focusing on the Republican opposition to abortion and the Republican is blaming Democrats for inflation.
The only race without an incumbent is NJ-08, where Democrat Rob Menendez, son of U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez is running against Republican Marcos Arroyo. Menendez is highly favored to win — his district is among the state’s most heavily Democratic, based in Essex, Hudson and Union counties.
Additionally, voters will cast ballots in municipal and school board races in several communities.