There’s no New Jersey congressional election more competitive this year than the one for the 7th District, where incumbent Democrat Tom Malinowski is hoping to fend off a challenge from Republican Tom Kean, Jr.

That’s despite Kean nearly ousting Malinowski two years ago, and a redistricting that shifted 30,000 more Republicans into the district, extending its boundaries to include all of Warren County and more towns in Sussex County. As of Wednesday, the Cook Political report had New Jersey's 7th District rated as “leans Republican.” Roll Call considers Malinowski the second-most vulnerable incumbent in the House. Yet the Malinowski camp says its internal polls show the race is extremely tight.

And it’s very possible the race will be too close to call on election night.

WNYC was live Wednesday from the affluent community of Westfield, at the Westfield Diner, for its broadcast of Morning Edition. There and in the weeks ahead of the broadcast, host Michael Hill and reporter Nancy Solomon spoke to experts and voters about what matters most in this election, and what’s ahead for the campaigns.

“The stakes are so high because this is one of a handful of races around the country, actually, that is a truly purple district,” Solomon said at the start of the broadcast.

New Jersey Polling Institute Director Patrick Murray says it's likely voters won't know who won New Jersey's 7th District on Election Night.

What we learned about inflation

The Kean campaign has focused its message on inflation and the economy. And the Polling Institute at Monmouth University finds inflation is the top concern for voters nationally, substantially beating out other concerns like abortion rights, crime or election security. The institute's polling director, Patrick Murray, was among those joining the broadcast.

“The No. 1 issue I hear about is inflation – the cost of basic goods,” Bridgewater Mayor Matthew Moench, a Republican, said in a conversation with Hill and Clinton Mayor Janice Kovach, a Democrat. “Because as you know, that impacts everybody, but it impacts the people who are the middle class and the lower class even more than the upper class.”

What we learned about abortion

The Malinowski camp has made abortion into its signature issue. Malinowski is uncompromisingly pro-choice, and supports federal protections for abortion rights. Kean says he supports a right to choose up to 20 weeks and allowances after that for some circumstances — but Malinowski argues Kean would support fellow Republicans letting states bar abortion, or go along with a national ban.

That distinction was enough to draw members of the local Westfield 2020 activist group to the diner Wednesday. They held up pro-Malinowski and pro-abortion rights signs as cars drove by, occasionally honking, on North Avenue.

“Abortion is on the ballot, and [Malinowski] is the only pro-choice candidate,” Julia O’Brien said outside the diner.

The helpings are generous at the Westfield Diner, the historic home of the so-called "Westfield Five" — five prominent Republican politicians who would frequently meet there to plan and discuss strategy. Among them was Tom Kean Jr., now seeking New Jersey's 7th Congressional District seat.

What we learned about polarization

Kean has attempted to draw a clear link between his opponent and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (In the only televised debate between the two candidates, Kean mentioned Pelosi 11 times). Malinowski ties Kean to former President Donald Trump and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (one Westfield resident, Carole Cooke, said outside the nearby Trader Joe’s that Kean’s campaign promise to have Trump’s back is a “no go for me").

And both candidates are reliant on enthusiasm from their own bases to win the election.

But both Moench and Kovach lamented that they’ve seen enthusiasm turn to polarization and vitriol, especially online.

“When you're on Zoom or on social media, you become the armchair warrior and you lose sight of the fact that there is a person … that you're talking about,” Kovach said.

What we learned about the last stretch of the campaign

Murray said a small constituency of independent voters could define the results in the district. Those unaffiliated voters “really aren't interested in all those cultural hot-button issues,” he said. They’re instead driven by economic concerns.

Democratic strongholds like Rahway could prove to be essential to Malinowski’s strategy in the run-up to the election. The town was pulled into the 7th District through the same redistricting process that upped the count of Republicans overall.

“Malinowski has not been their representative, and so they're used to voting for Donald Payne [the Democratic incumbent seeking re-election in the 10th Congressional District],” Solomon said. “So it'll be very interesting to watch whether Malinowski can get turnout in Rahway. That is key.”

Even though ballots will be opened early and be ready for scanning on election night, the counting process could drag out the wait for results. Murray said voters could face up to two weeks before they know the outcome.

Those who vote by mail will likely skew Democratic, he said. That could mean an apparent Kean lead shrinks or gets reversed as more ballots come in.

“Prepare to not know who won this race on election night,” Murray said.