Lines on a Map

Tom Kean Jr. and Tom Malinowski making speeches.

Tom Kean Jr. and Tom Malinowski making speeches.

Many expected a red wave this November. President Joe Biden wasn’t popular, inflation rates were at 40-year highs and it was a midterm year. The president’s party always loses the midterms. C’est la vie.


Except the red wave never came.


Sure, the Republicans just barely took the House from the Democrats, but they also snatched a Senate defeat from the jaws of victory. Races written off as Republican shoo-ins were shockingly competitive. So…what happened?


The sun hadn’t even risen on November 9th by the time a million op-eds had come up with explanations. Many pointed to Roe v. Wade’s controversial demise for bolstering Democrats across the country. Five states passed pro-abortion ballot measures, so perhaps there’s merit to that theory. Others pointed out the perceived extremism of some Republican candidates— especially those endorsed by former president Donald Trump. Many of Trump’s most high profile selections fell flat this year, giving leftists, liberals, and Never Trump conservatives hope that the days of MAGA are behind us.


But the truth is more complicated than that—and you don’t have to look far for proof. 


Enter NJ-7, the House district encompassing all of Hunterdon County. For the last four years, this seat’s been held by Democrat Tom Malinowski. Two years ago, he defeated Tom Kean, Jr. by a nail-biting 1%. In 2022, Kean Jr. got his revenge, even as Malinowski campaigned on abortion and painted him in a negative light. Surely, if our theories are to be believed, Malinowski should have won the race. Right?


Well, that’s not factoring in the stock-trading scandal. Malinowski’s been in hot water for some time now over some scandalous purchases early into the pandemic. Kean Jr., on the other hand, had the name recognition of a decently popular governor, and decades of political experience as the New Jersey senate minority leader.


Candidates matter. Party politics has a big impact, but at the end of the day, democracy is about people. Trump’s candidates weren’t great:  Mehmet Oz lacked conservative bona fides, political experience, and public trust. Herschel Walker may yet be sent to Washington—but given his countless controversies, fleeting charisma, and political background matching Dr. Oz, it is not promising. But Trump wasn’t the death blow to these candidates—the success of J.D. Vance in Ohio, another Trump endorsee, can speak to that. It was their own unfitness for the job. 


So, let’s turn back to NJ-7. What else was different in 2022 from the identical race in 2020? 


It’s simple: the voters.


The 2020 census saw that the whole nation’s House districts were redrawn, and that had powerful effects. NJ-7 was seen by many—including Tom Malinowski—as a sort of sacrificial lamb for New Jersey Democrats. Other blue districts were made less competitive, at the expense of one seat flipping. In the end, NJ Democrats held onto their supermajority.


Redistricting can explain trends in other states, too. Florida was redrawn to favor Republicans by a Republican-majority legislature. Is it any surprise that the GOP came out on top? Or take New York: the deep blue legislature tried to pull a Florida for the Dems, but were shut down by the state’s Supreme Court. New York’s redistricting was forced to be far more competitive than the first attempt, leading to a noteworthy Republican performance.


So what does all of this spell for the future?


Well, Ron DeSantis is said by many to be the future of the Republican party. He demolished his opponent in the Florida gubernatorial race by almost 20%. A culture warrior famous (and infamous) for his migrant busing stunts, and anti-LGBT legislation, DeSantis’ coalition-building achievements cannot be denied. Florida, once the perennial purple state, has gone red. White and Latino voters, the two largest racial groups in both Florida and the nation, fell hard for DeSantis in 2022. That coalition could catapult DeSantis to victory on the backs of the competitive southwest—if, that is, Donald Trump doesn’t get in the way.


The GOP is at a crossroads. The base is rallied around Trump, who has already announced his presidential campaign. But Trump is not the undisputed leader he once was. Seeing his candidates flounder in the midterms, the Republican establishment has begun to seek an alternative in Ron DeSantis. The two may be ideological equals, but DeSantis is young, relevant, and—most importantly—electable. As we’ve learned, candidates make the difference.


But, so do the lines on the map. 


As we’ve all come to learn, the Supreme Court of the United States is no stranger to making controversial decisions. That may well ring true again with the pending decision on Moore v. Harper. To make a long story short, this case would rule on Independent State Legislature Theory, which suggests that state legislatures should hold unchecked authority over federal elections. It’s been shot down as recently as 2015 and 2019, but four sitting justices have since expressed support for this once dismissed idea. If passed, partisan gerrymandering would be functionally unstoppable, and elections may be decided years before they take place.


Our politicians could double down on appealing to new voters, coalition-building and convincing people to come around to their side. But lines on a map are powerful. Soon, those lines on a map may become all that matters. I suppose we can only wait and see.



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