Two years ago, four Garden State House seats flipped parties as part of a national Democratic wave. One went back to Republicans in a party switch last winter, but voters in the general election will determine if the 11-1 map of 2018 was a fluke or the future of blue New Jersey.

Rowan University political scientist Ben Dworkin said the three most competitive races in New Jersey this year are the 2nd, 3rd and 7th Districts, though in none are the challengers favored.

“From a national perspective they’re critical if the Republicans are going to make serious inroads towards getting back to the majority in the House of Representatives,” said Dworkin, director of the Rowan Institute for Public Policy and Citizenship.

Political handicappers forecast that U.S. Rep. Jeff Van Drew’s race against Amy Kennedy in the 2nd District should be closest. Rutgers University political scientist John Weingart said Republicans are making a big late push for state Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr. against U.S. Rep. Tom Malinowski in the 7th District.

“For all these races, really, it to some extent depends on how (President Donald) Trump does,” said Weingart, the associate director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics. “And Trump’s likely to be more popular in Van Drew’s part of the state than in Malinowski’s part of the state.”

More than $16 million has been spent already in Central Jersey’s 7th District, nearly half of that in negative ads from outside groups, fairly even divided in targeting each candidate.

Dworkin said the district was gerrymandered in 2011 to favor Republicans but that wealthy, college-educated voters’ allegiances have changed toward Democrats.

“It’s just changing demographics and whether the negative ads from the Kean campaign will bounce back and hurt Kean more than they hurt Malinowski,” Dworkin said.

Weingart sees parallels between Malinowski and former Congressman Rush Holt 20 years earlier – elected in a long-held GOP district, then facing a well-established Republican in his first re-election bid.

“In that case it didn’t work, and Holt won that year and stayed there for another eight terms until he decided to give it up,” Weingart said. “I don’t know if this will be the same or not.”

“In a normal year, which this certainly isn’t, I think Malinowski and Andy Kim would both be pretty vulnerable, having won districts that were Republican for a long time before they came along two years ago,” he said.

Dworkin said it had been expected that 3rd District challenger David Richter would put far more of his own money into the race than the $700,000 he has. Kim’s side has spent $11.4 million, over five times more than Richter’s side’s $2 million.

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The most fascinating House race in New Jersey this year is in South Jersey’s 2nd District, Dworkin said. Van Drew, a Democrat who switched to the Republican Party in response to Trump’s impeachment, is in a toss-up race against Kennedy, a member of the famed American political family.

“A Kennedy versus the party flipper,” Dworkin said. “National attention is being paid, there’s national money that’s coming in because both of these people now have national networks.”

More than $17 million has been spent on the race so far. That includes nearly $10 million from outside groups, which have spent $5.1 million on ads attacking Van Drew and $3.6 million going after Kennedy.

Van Drew hopes to continue his career-long ability to attract crossover support even though he’s switched parties. The Kennedy side believes Democrats who tolerated Van Drew’s conservative record will abandon him now.

Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. Contact him at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com.