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In 7th Congressional District, Republicans Tout Conservative Credentials

Incumbent Republican Leonard Lance faces third challenge from primary hopeful David Larsen

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leonard lance
U.S.Rep. Leonard Lance faces only one Republican challenger in the primary for Congressional District 7.

In challenging U.S. Rep. Leonard Lance for a third consecutive Republican primary in the 7th Congressional District, David Larsen is seeking to emulate the rise of Rep. Scott Garrett, New Jersey's most conservative House member.

Garrett ran from the right in primaries against moderate Congresswoman Marge Roukema in 1998 and 2000, narrowly losing both times. In 2002, rather than endure a third Garrett challenge, Roukema decided not to seek a 12th term. Garrett finally broke through, winning a five-candidate primary and defeating Democrat Anne Sumers.

While Larsen shares much of Garrett's ideology, he is far less positioned to unseat an incumbent who in recent years has shored up his conservative credentials.

Garrett received about 48 percent of the vote against Roukema in 1998 and 2000, but Larsen fell way short of Lance in 2010 and 2012.

In his first try, Larsen received 31 percent in a three-candidate primary in which Lance, who won with 56 percent, was perceived as vulnerable stemming from his first-term vote for a cap-and-trade global warming bill despised by conservatives.

Lance's margin wasn’t much better two years ago, when he had a head-to-head matchup against Lance, losing 39 percent to Lance’s 61 percent.

Larsen is struggling with fundraising, generating $20,659 in contributions through March 31, while Lance listed $648,188, according to the Federal Election Commission.

John Weingart, associate director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University, characterized Lance as a “heavy favorite” over Larsen.

“One can run several times and build momentum, or create the impression that you’ve run and never won. Larsen may be creating the impression that he’s in the second category,” Weingart said.

Larsen’s most significant endorsement is from the Independence Hall Tea Party PAC, which focuses on races in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware. For his 2012 race, he secured the symbolically significant backing of Michael Reagan, a radio host and son of President Ronald Reagan.

The Backing of the Party

Lance, as would be expected of an incumbent, has Republican establishment support in the 7th. The district’s Republican tilt was intensified in the 2011 redistricting and includes all of Hunterdon County, parts of Morris, Somerset, Warren, and Union counties, and a lone Essex County municipality, Millburn.

Janice Kovach, the mayor of Clinton, is running unopposed for the Democratic nomination in the June 3 primary. Lance is a Clinton resident.

Larsen, a businessman from Tewksbury, has never held elective office.

In a May 16 interview, Larsen cited first-term Republican Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Tennessee, both popular with the Tea Party and possible 2016 presidential candidates, as role models.

“I’m more conservative than Lance,” said Larsen, whose prolife views and advocacy for the Second Amendment are listed first and second, respectively, on the issues section of his campaign website.

Larsen said he is not a Tea Party member, but described himself as a “champion of the grass roots causes” behind the movement.

“The people are disgusted with Washington. They’re disgusted with career politicians like Lance,” Larsen said of the three-term congressman, who was elected to succeed retiring Republican Rep. Michael Ferguson in 2008 after 18 years in the New Jersey Legislature.

The 'R' Word

Lance, asked about Larsen in a May 15 interview, questioned his conservative credentials by asserting that he failed to vote in 1980, when President Reagan was elected, and in 1984 when Reagan won a second term.

“He claims to be a Reagan Republican. I proudly supported Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984. My opponent did not. I know this because he didn’t vote,” said Lance, whose campaign cited voting records in New York, where Larsen was living, as their source. Larsen, asked about Lance’s charge, said he believed he voted for Reagan in 1980, when he was 22 years old, but was not sure.

“I could have sworn I voted for him,” Larsen said.

Other than the swipe at Larsen's voting record, Lance -- in typical front-runner fashion -- said he is not focusing on his challenger.

“I’m very proud of my record. I’m running for reelection based on my record in Congress,” said Lance, who has moved his positions to the right along with other Republicans in accordance with the national party’s direction.

Lance, 61, was viewed as a moderate during his 18 years in Trenton, much in the tradition of Roukema and other Republicans of that era in New Jersey.

It was in that tradition that Lance, five months into his first term, joined seven other House Republicans in voting for the American Clean Energy and Security Act. The Democratic bill would have established a cap on greenhouse gas emissions. It passed by 219 to 212, meaning that the Republican crossovers swayed the outcome.

The so-called “enlightened eight,” including New Jersey Reps. Frank LoBiondo and Chris Smith, drew criticism from conservatives nationwide. Larsen made Lance’s vote a key issue in his 2010 primary challenge, but by that point, Lance was distancing himself from the controversial legislation.

Since then, Lance has consistently walked the conservative line, both in voting and in rhetoric.

“I have supported, and will continue to support, the budgets of Congressman Ryan,” Lance said, referring to House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s balanced-budget plan reducing costs for Medicaid, food stamps, and other social programs.

Lance's campaign website lists 12 issues. The first declares his opposition to the Affordable Care Act, and his 64 votes to either fully repeal, defund, or dismantle it.

“I’m an opponent of the ACA. I want it repealed and replaced,” Lance said, though any such effort hinges on Republicans recapturing not only the Senate, but the presidency.

Lance’s second issue is “fighting an imperial presidency,” and accuses the IRS of targeting conservatives for ideological reasons.

His website cites his opposition to amnesty for illegal immigrants, support for the Keystone XL pipeline, and objections to “overly burdensome environmental regulations."

Combating climate change, the impetus for his dramatic 2009 vote, goes unmentioned.

Lance lauded his role as the only New Jersey Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which he said served a vital role in the state. The sole New Jersey Democrat on the committee is Rep. Frank Pallone.

“The committee’s jurisdiction is essential to New Jersey,” Lance said, noting its oversight role in telecommunications and life sciences.

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