U.S. Rep. Leonard Lance is facing two challengers in the Republican primary as he seeks a fifth term.
David Larsen is running against Lance in the primary for the fourth consecutive time. Two years ago, he came within nine percentage points of an upset. Craig Heard is making his first try at Congress.
Viewed as a moderate during his 18 years as a New Jersey state legislator, Lance today is perceived as more conservative than when he arrived in Congress in January 2009.
Five months into his first term, Lance joined seven other Republicans in backing a Democratic bill that would have established a cap on greenhouse gas emissions. It passed the House, 219-212, but never went to a Senate vote. Larsen, in his first primary challenge in 2010, made Lance’s role in the so-called “enlightened eight” a key campaign issue.
But that was then, this is now. Lance has since moved to shore up his conservative credentials. The American Conservative Union in 2015 gave Lance a 71 percent score, the second-highest of New Jersey’s six Republican members of Congress. Only Rep. Scott Garrett, at 100 percent, received a higher grade.
The seventh district is solidly GOP, with Republicans outnumbering Democrats by 144,246 to 118,198. There are 235,302 unaffiliated voters.
The district includes all of Hunterdon County, parts of Morris, Somerset, Warren and Union counties, and a lone Essex County municipality, Millburn.
Both Larsen and Heard are touting their business backgrounds. Larsen founded a construction and home improvement company that he merged with his father’s, Larsen Windows and Doors. Heard, the president and CEO of Gateway Outdoor Advertising, is a former Roxbury school board president.
Lance, an attorney, won an Assembly seat in 1991 and moved to the Senate in 2002.
Larsen, in February, suggested that Heard is a “straw candidate,” aimed at helping Lance win a fifth term by dividing the opposition. Lance defeated Larsen, 54 percent to 45 percent, in a head-to-head race in 2014.
Heard, who donated $1,500 to Larsen’s campaign in 2012, denied the charge during a radio candidates’ forum on Tuesday.
“I’m not the shill and I’m not standing in there just to create an issue where Leonard would have a better chance of winning,” Heard said. “Mr. Larsen had three chances to make his points, to get his supporters and deliver his message, and the voters essentially rejected it after three attempts.”
Heard was in the radio studio for the forum., while Lance participated via telephone (Disclosure: This reporter was one of the forum moderators.) Larsen did not participate, and his campaign manager, King Penna, said it was because Lance did not appear in person.
Larsen announced on Tuesday the filing of a defamation lawsuit against Lance and his campaign manager, Bill Killion.
As described on Larsen’s website, “The lawsuit arises from published statements made by Lance and Killion that repeatedly and falsely declare Larsen to be a ‘notorious tax cheat’ and a ‘serial tax dodger.”
Killion did not back away from the reported statements, in responding to the lawsuit via e-mail.
“Truth is an absolute defense. And no frivolous lawsuit can hide the fact that David Larsen failed to pay his property taxes in-full and on-time 21 times over nearly a six-year period, racking up more than $25,000 in unpaid debt,” Killion said.
“Larsen admitted he had a tax problem during his first run for Congress and now, after being rejected by voters in 2010, 2012 and 2014, he’s changed his tune. David Larsen should come clean on his history of tax troubles and stop misleading voters,” Killion said.
Larsen, in a press release, said he deferred paying his property tax bill when his business encountered difficulty during the recession. “Rather than lay off workers, I used the money to keep them employed by making installment payments on my real estate taxes at an 18 percent rate of interest, plus a penalty. The tax assessor later confirmed in writing that my taxes were paid in full; a copy of that letter was dispatched to the Lance campaign. They ignored it completely and continued the attacks,” Larsen said.
The three Republicans candidates, on their websites, are calling for tougher controls on immigration.
Larsen calls for “sealing our borders,” stating that border security and enforcement of immigration laws “are critical components of our national defense.”
Heard supports building a wall along the border with Mexico and says that if Mexico does not help pay for it, as presumptive Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has said, that aid from the U.S. should be reduced to make up the difference.
In addition to his push for “securing our borders,” Lance says he opposes amnesty for those in the U.S. illegally and requiring businesses to use the E-verify background check system.
Lance notes his vote for a federal balanced budget amendment and opposition to various spending plans backed by President Obama. He backs legislation that would repeal the “wasteful” ethanol subsidy.
Heard says he would support reducing the corporate income tax from 35 percent to 25 percent, which he said would encourage investments and create additional jobs.
Larsen touts his support for “free market capitalism,” stating, “unnecessary and unconstitutional regulations must be repealed so that entrepreneurs are free to fuel the renewal of our economy.”
All three have called for repealing the Affordable Health Care Act, though Heard and Lance, during Tuesday’s forum, said there are aspects of the law that should be maintained. Heard said he supports the ACA provision enabling parents to keep their adult children on their policy until age 26, but he criticized Republicans in Congress for not doing enough to oppose the law.
“They continue to fund it by approving the annual budget of the federal government. They have to stand up to it,” Heard said.
Lance reiterated aspects of his counter-proposal to the ACA that would retain some parts of it, including a ban on denying coverage due to pre-existing conditions, while allowing insurance to be sold across state lines and incorporating tort reform to lower malpractice costs.
Lance said that, if Republicans win the White House and maintain control of the House and Senate, “I believe something like what I have just said would become law of the land.
All three are acknowledging their support for Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee for president.
Heard sent a press release endorsing Trump on May 2, one day before Trump’s win in the Indiana primary prompted his last two remaining rivals, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Ohio Gov. John Kasich, to exit the race. Heard said he has done business with Trump dating to the 1980s and tweaked Larsen for supporting Cruz.
On May 4, Larsen and Lance endorsed Trump.
Larsen stated at that time, “The people have chosen their candidate through our election process and now it has become evident who our Republican Presidential nominee is.”
Lance, who had backed Gov. Chris Christie, expanded on his thinking Tuesday.
“Donald Trump has won our nomination. He was not my first choice but I will be supporting the Republican candidate for president as I have always done,” Lance said.