LEDGEWOOD, N.J. — Nobody dislikes New Jersey Rep. Leonard Lance.
The moderate Republican voted against what were supposed to be his party’s major legislative achievements this Congress: the tax overhaul and the repeal of the 2010 health care law. And unlike many of his GOP peers, he’s actually held town hall meetings. His civility and the carefulness with which he chooses his words hark back to a different political era.
All that goes over well in his well-educated, affluent 7th District, where voters narrowly backed Hillary Clinton in 2016. But that might not be enough to save Lance this year.
With Democrats energized like never before, and unaffiliated voters looking for a check on President Donald Trump, the five-term Republican is in the fight of his life against Democrat Tom Malinowski, a former State Department official in the Obama administration. Polling has shown a close race, often within the margin of error. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the contest Tilts Republican.
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A moderate voice?
At a meet-and-greet with Malinowski at a pizza joint here Sunday morning, voters were excited to have a viable alternative to Lance.
But even they kept talking about how nice a person the incumbent is. Malinowski’s challenge is to prove that Lance hasn’t done enough for the district and will be a vote for a GOP-controlled Congress that’s turned off the seat’s moderate voters.
Malinowski told one woman to recall a scene from “The Wizard of Oz,” where Dorothy finds out the wizard isn’t really a wizard and accuses him of being a “very, very bad man.”
“He’s a good man,” Malinowski said of Lance. “Just not a very good congressman.”
“My opponent is running as a moderate, but that’s not the way he’s been governing,” the Democrat told the crowd of about 25, which included supporters and undecided voters. Lance has voted with Trump 87 percent of the time, according to an analysis by FiveThirtyEight.
Democrats are hammering Lance on the airwaves for voting for the GOP health care plan last year. While he did not support final passage on the floor, he did vote to advance the legislation out of the Energy and Commerce Committee and has voted for previous efforts to repeal the health care law.
“He ran on repealing it 6o times,” Malinowski told the crowd. “How do I know that? I read his website.”
Lance calls attacks on his health care vote “demagogic,” pointing that he’s never campaigned on a “repeal” of the health care law without a replacement.
“The most important issue that comes up is bipartisanship, more so than health care or taxation or foreign policy,” he said in an interview in Westfield, where he was attending a campaign event for GOP Senate nominee Bob Hugin.
Lance touts his membership in the Problem Solvers’ Caucus; his support from the centrist group No Labels and former Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’ gun safety organization; and the fact that he’s backed legislation to prevent Trump from firing special counsel Robert S. Mueller III.
Indeed, when asked why they supported Lance, voters at the Hugin event overwhelmingly pointed to his demeanor, rather than to any specific policy position.
“He’s a real gentleman. He’s respectful and bipartisan,” one unaffiliated voter said.
“He’ll do what’s best for New Jersey, not what’s best for Republicans,” said another woman, before adding, “It’s nothing against Malinowski. But Lance has a proven track record.”
Time for change?
Back at the pizza place, Malinowski sat across the table from 85-year-old Ralph Nappi, an unaffiliated voter who said he didn’t know “a damned thing” about the Democrat.
Not unlike Lance, Malinowski is a deliberate speaker. He pitched himself as fiscally responsible, pro-military and patriotic. He told Nappi he believes leaders should be held to a high moral standard.
“If I said that to you 10 years ago, which party would you think I was a member of?” Malinowski asked rhetorically.
The former Obama administration official doesn’t shy away from party — “I’m a Democrat, obviously,” he told the pizza parlor crowd several times Sunday. But he dropped the late Sen. John McCain’s name several times, too. The two worked together on ending torture, and footage of the Arizona Republican introducing Malinowski at his Senate confirmation hearing is part of one of his ads.
Malinowski also referenced recent remarks from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to argue that Republicans would “rob Social Security and Medicare” to pay for their tax plan.
The tax overhaul hasn’t gone over well in this district because of its cap on the deduction for state and local taxes, which disproportionately hurts high-tax states like New Jersey. Malinowski advocates repealing and replacing the GOP tax plan with “something fiscally responsible,” whereas Lance wants to modify it.
When Nappi asked where he stood on “Medicare for All” legislation, Malinowksi said he wants to “keep the system we have,” but add a public option.
In a debate last week and an interview Sunday, Lance tried to argue there would be little practical difference between a public option and a Medicare-for-all system, which Malinowski does not support. Lance has also attacked his opponent for supporting the Iran nuclear deal and for inviting former Secretary of State John Kerry to the district for a recent town hall. Despite Lance’s votes against leadership priorities, Congressional Leadership Fund, the super PAC aligned with Speaker Paul D. Ryan, has invested in the district to help him tell that story.
And Lance likes his chances in the race. Two months ago, he conceded, Democratic energy exceeded GOP energy, but as Election Day approaches, he’s seeing equal enthusiasm on both sides. He suspects having Hugin at the top of the ticket will help him, too.
But Lance is also resorting to another argument — one that hints at possible doubts that his policy positions alone will win him re-election.
“My opponent is a complete and total carpetbagger,” he said.
Malinowski moved to the district in 2017 after spending his career in Washington, D.C. He grew up in Princeton, but that’s not currently part of the 7th District.
“So, no, emphatically, he did NOT grow up in the district,” Lance said, leaning over to enunciate the word “not” into this reporter’s recorder. “I live where I’ve always lived. In Hunterdon County, in Clinton Township, where my family has lived since 1740,” he said, before making an attempt at humor. “So I look pretty good for my age.”