Reruns and sequels: New Jersey’s 2022 House races are set
TRENTON – Four of the 12 House elections this fall in New Jersey are rematches of general election races from two years ago, and the two candidates most likely to join the state congressional delegation are sons of current and former statewide officials.
Rob Menendez, whose father is U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez, handily won the Democratic nod for an open seat in the heavily Democratic 8th District and is a shoo-in to win in November. And Tom Kean Jr., whose father served two terms as governor from 1982 to 1990, is the Republican pick in the 7th District, where he nearly won two years ago in a district since redrawn to become more GOP-friendly.
Ben Dworkin, director of the Rowan Institute for Public Policy and Citizenship, said it’s tough to get yourself known in New Jersey, given the expense of political ads on New York and Philadelphia network TV, so it helps if a candidate’s parent was an elected official.
“I don’t think it’s that surprising that we see multi-generational families succeeding in New Jersey politics,” Dworkin said.
Kean was a longtime state lawmaker who rose to become Senate minority leader; he opted against seeking re-election last year to focus on running for Congress. His family has long been involved in politics. His grandfather, Robert, served in Congress for 20 years. His great-grandfather was a United States senator. An ancestor was even a delegate in the Continental Congress, from South Carolina.
Menendez has never held public office though flirted with challenging Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop, who crossed his father when the senator was on trial facing corruption charges. It ended in a mistrial, and the charges were later dropped.
“Look, he’s certainly well-connected because he happens to be the son of the current U.S. senator,” Dworkin said. “But he has his own talents as well.”
Rep. Donald Payne Jr., D-Essex, fended off two challengers to win renomination to another term in the House seat once held by his father.
Kean is favored in his rematch with Rep. Tom Malinowski due to how redistricting changed the 7th District, President Joe Biden’s lagging approval ratings and voter frustrations over inflation, gas prices and supply chain issues.
Dworkin said each party will spend millions in the 7th District, “by far the most competitive race” in the state. He said Democrats have a 5-seat margin nationally, so every flipped seat makes a big difference.
The National Republican Campaign Committee said it is reserving $1.25 million in ads for the race on New York area cable channels.
“Republicans feel that they’ve got some good wind at their backs. They have a talented candidate running. This is their chance to perhaps flip a seat from blue to red,” Dworkin said.
There are four districts where the Democratic and Republican nominees are the same as they were in 2020: Rep. Donald Norcross and Claire Gustafson in the 1st District, Rep. Josh Gottheimer and Frank Pallotta in the 5th District, Malinowski and Kean in the 7th District, and Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr. and Billy Prempeh in the 9th District.
For the most part, the candidates with the party line and preferred ballot position won Tuesday – with the big exception of the Bergen Republicans, whose choice in the 5th District primary, Nick De Gregorio, lost to Pallotta.
Similarly, the Republican who won the nomination in the 11th District, Paul DeGroot, a former Passaic County assistant prosecutor, had the party line in just one of the three districts in the county but prevailed over the candidate who had two, Morris County Commissioner Tayfun Selen.
Most of the other races weren't close, in the end. Rep. Chris Smith, the longest-serving House member in New Jersey history, won handily in the 4th District despite former President Donald Trump calling for his ouster for voting for both the Jan. 6 commission and the infrastructure bill. Trump never endorsed any of Smith's opponents.
Democrats enter the general election cycle with more funding, though some nominees who are personally wealthy, like Bob Healey in the 3rd District, could narrow those gaps. The NRCC reserved $3.3 million on Philadelphia TV to spend in the 3rd District, where Rep. Andy Kim is the incumbent, or the 7th District in Pennsylvania.
New Jersey isn’t necessarily going to be a key state to control of Congress, so Biden will have other states that are likely to be bigger priorities. But Dworkin said he could take a side trip to New Jersey while visiting Pennsylvania and notes his Cabinet members have been frequent Garden State visitors.
He doesn’t think Democratic candidates would hesitate to appear with Biden, whose approval rating in the state was 45% in a Monmouth University Poll in April, a bit higher than his national ratings.
“Yeah, Joe Biden’s popular here,” Dworkin said. “This is not a bad thing. If the president of the United States comes and is going to talk about things that matter to New Jerseyans, I absolutely think Democrats will welcome him.”
The Monmouth Poll in April found that 52% of voters prefer that Democrats control Congress, while 41% preferred Republicans.