U.S. Rep. Leonard Lance, having survived a closer-than-expected Republican primary by touting his conservative positions, is now stressing his bipartisan credentials heading into the November 4 general election.
Lance is facing Clinton Mayor Janice Kovach, a Democrat, and James Gawron, a self-described libertarian, as he seeks a fourth term representing the 7th Congressional District.
In staving off David Larsen, who sought to position himself as a more conservative alternative, Lance -- known as a moderate during his 18 years in the New Jersey Legislature -- emphasized his opposition to the Affordable Care Act and amnesty for illegal immigrants.
Lance also promoted his support of the Keystone XL oil pipeline, criticized some environmental regulations as excessive, and spoke of reigning in what his campaign website dubbed an “imperial presidency.”
Lance still stands behind those conservative themes, but lately appears equally inclined to talk about areas in which he has found common ground with Democrats.
A flier provided last week by his campaign labeled Lance an “independent voice fighting for bipartisan results.” It listed four examples of Lance joining with a minority of Republicans to support Democratic-backed legislation, including ending the federal government shutdown and reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act.
It also mentioned three Lance-introduced bills signed by President Obama, including the Excellence in Mental Health Act.
“I’m proud of my entire record,” Lance said in an interview.
“I’m a fiscal conservative. I’m also proud of those areas where there’s been bipartisan cooperation,” he added.
Kovach, in response, said a full reading of Lance’s record reveals a significant shift to the right.
“I feel he’s allowed his party to drive his voting,” said Kovach, adding she voted for Lance in his first race for Congress “because he was good on all the issues that were important to me.”
Lance maintained his policy positions have been consistent on all issues, regardless of the political season.
The 7th District includes all of Hunterdon County, parts of Morris, Somerset, Warren and Union counties, and a lone Essex County municipality, Millburn. It is favorable terrain for Republicans.
Of 496,602 registered voters as of September 30, 146,598 are Republicans and 117,362 are Democrats, according to the New Jersey Secretary of State’s office. There are 232,119 unaffiliated voters.
Lance lives in Clinton Township, while Kovach lives in the neighboring town of Clinton.
Lance, 62, an attorney, was elected to Congress in 2008 after 11 years in the state Assembly and Senate. He succeeded Republican Congressman Michael Ferguson, who declined to seek a fifth term. He and U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone (D-6) are New Jersey's two representatives on the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
Lance won a third term in November 2012 with 57 percent of the vote over then-Democratic Assemblyman Upendra Chivukula -- confirmed last month as a commissioner of the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities -- and two other candidates.
Kovach, 49, is a business consultant. She held management positions at Prudential, as well as Fleet and NatWest banks. She served on the New Jersey Highlands Council and is a former director of the state Division on Women. She was elected mayor of Clinton in 2012.
Gawron is making his second run for Congress in four years. The 44-year-old computer programmer lives in Mount Olive, which prior to redistricting was part of the 11th District.
In 2010, Gawron received about 2 percent of the vote in a race won by U.S. Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-11).
Gawron's campaign website lists 14 issues, including auditing or eliminating the Federal Reserve, ending all foreign aid, and protecting privacy rights.
“As a third party, to have an expectation of winning, it's unreasonable. It's frustrating,” said Gawron in asserting that voters often say they are frustrated with politics but remain hesitant to look beyond the two major parties.
A proposed 100-mile natural gas pipeline through the district has emerged as a key issue between Kovach and Lance.
Kovach, a pipeline opponent, questioned the credibility and timing of Lance's October 9 statement calling upon the Penn East Pipeline Co. to “reexamine” the pipeline’s path.
The company, in announcing the project in August, said it would provide natural gas service to the equivalent of 4.7 million homes, lowering energy and gas costs in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
Lance, in an October 15 interview, cited “significant concerns in Hunterdon County” regarding the Penn East pipeline, which would run through land under farmland preservation and the Delaware River Watershed.
Kovach countered by alluding to Lance's support for the Natural Gas Pipeline Permitting Reform Act aimed at speeding up the approval process. The measure passed the House in November 2013.
She charged that Lance, due to voting for what she characterized as a “free pass” to such projects, was not in a position to belatedly raise concerns about one moving forward too quickly.
“We could potentially have a mishmash of pipelines coming through our state and communities,” Kovach said.
The Republican primary in June offered some unexpected drama for Lance. He defeated Larsen for a third consecutive primary but the margin narrowed from 2012 and 2010. Lance received 54 percent of the vote, making it the most competitive House primary in New Jersey.
While Lance had Republican establishment support, Larsen made inroads with some conservative voters. He was aided by an endorsement from the Independence Hall Tea Party PAC. Lance, asked to explain what happened, said, “I think voter turnout was low.”
“Voter turnout is always stronger in a presidential year,” said Lance, who defeated Larsen with 61 percent in 2012.
Kovach ran unopposed in the Democratic primary, while Gawron said he qualified for the ballot by submitting about 150 signatures. Of the three, Lance and Gawron support repealing the Affordable Care Act. Kovach is the lone candidate to support the law, though she acknowledged, “It's not perfect.”
Lance’s proposed alternatives include allowing insurance to be sold across state lines, improving health savings accounts, establishing insurance pools, and placing additional limits on malpractice.
Gawron, on his website, pledged to oppose “barriers to a free healthcare market.”
Kovach criticized Lance for voting to defund Planned Parenthood and opposing additional gun control measures. Her proposals include background checks on all gun purchases and reviving the federal assault weapons ban that expired in 2004.
Lance responded that his legislative approach to abortion is unchanged, stating, “I do not favor federal funding for abortion, except in cases of rape, incest, or life of the mother.”
“That is the mainstream position,” Lance said.
On guns, Lance said he joined 76 Republicans in bolstering the FBI background-check database and said his Excellence in Mental Health Act is relevant, since mental health often is a factor in violence.
Immigration is another dividing point between Kovach and Lance. Kovach said she would support reform and endorsed the DREAM Act offering permanent residency to some who arrived in the nation as children.
Lance, asked about the issue, said, “There will be no reform of the system until we first secure our southern border.”
“I do not favor citizenship for adults who came to this country illegally. We have to enforce the laws that are currently on the books,” he said.
Asked about ISIS, Lance referenced his vote September 17 in favor of Obama's request to train and equip Syrian forces against the terrorist group. Lance added that he also supported the air strikes ordered by Obama.
“I did favor what the president is doing in that regard. I have said the president needs a long-term plan, and he needs to come to us with that long-term plan,” Lance said.
Kovach, speaking generally about military action, said, “As a mom, that's the last thing I want to do.”
“I don't want to send my child, or any child, over there, but if that's the only option for us, I will make the decision I have to make,” Kovach said.
Lance being the perceived favorite is not helping Kovach’s fundraising. She reported $59,420 in contributions through September 30, according to the Federal Election Commission, and sought to buttress her candidacy with two personal loans totaling $45,000.
Donations to Lance through the third quarter totaled $960,168. Gawron did not list any contributions.
Kovach said that part of her goal in running was to provoke a discussion about policy from a different perspective.
“If we get people talking, and we change the paradigm of the conversation, that's a win for me,” Kovach said.