Jobs and the economy are the top issues in the 7th Congressional District, but Democratic challenger Upendra Chivukula is counting on his stance on other social issues to make inroads in the conservative-leaning district represented by Republican U.S. Rep. Leonard Lance.
Two third-party candidates — Dennis Breen, an independent, and Patrick McKnight, a Libertarian — contend that an increasingly disenchanted electorate will be a major factor in the campaign, giving them a greater chance to siphon votes from the major party candidates in this election year.
Besides job creation, the incumbent congressman, who was first elected to the seat in 2008, says his priorities are fiscal responsibility — lowering the federal debt and deficits, reducing federal spending and enacting a balanced budget — and tax reform.
“We must extend the current tax rates for all individuals and small businesses and move forward with comprehensive tax reform to make our code simpler, flatter and fairer,” Lance said.
Chivukula said his focus is also on jobs and improving the economy, particularly by promoting trade, especially agriculture. He is also concerned about energy policy.
“We are sending billions of dollars to foreign nations for oil. It’s also a security issue. We need to be self-sustaining,” said Chivukula, a state assemblyman from Middlesex County.
Education is another major issue for Chivukula, who said that educational opportunities were key to pulling him and his family out of poverty. He was born in India, earned a degree in engineering, and emigrated to the U.S. at the age of 24 as a graduate student.
“We are in a global market place,” he said. “We need to make higher education more affordable with Pell grants and subsidized grants.”
Voter registration numbers suggest that the 7th District should be even friendlier territory for the Republican incumbent than in the past, as last fall’s redistricting added many Republican-leaning municipalities and removed some towns with a higher percentage of registered Democrats.
However, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee put the 7th District on its list of 20 “emerging races” across the country, meaning it is one that the DCCC believes has the potential to be competitive.
Lance’s advisers contend that the DCCC listing was merely a political ploy.
“The emerging races are a way for the national Democrats to show donors and political pundits that enough seats are in play to retake the House majority,” said Lance’s chief of staff, Todd Mitchell. “But the reality is not a single news organizations or political handicapper has the 7th Congressional District on the list of seats to flip from red to blue.”
Mitchell pointed to five political handicappers and news sources ranging from The New York Times to Real Clear Politics that all list the district as “safe” or solidly Republican, and likely to stay that way.
Chivukula contends that while the 7th has lost some of its more heavily Democratic towns — such as Woodbridge and Edison in Middlesex County — he can still run a winning campaign in the district.
Said Chivukula, “The interesting thing is, registration is Republican, but issue-wise, it’s more liberal.”
Upon Lance’s elevation to the post of minority leader in the state Senate in 2003, The New York Times called Lance “a fiscal conservative whose moderate views on social issues place him comfortably within New Jersey’s traditionally centrist Republican Party.”
However, Chivukula argues that Lance has grown more conservative in the last eight years.
“Congressman Lance has an awful record on issues impacting women’s health care,” said Chivukula. “He voted to deny funding for women to have access to preventative health care services, including clinical breast exams, cancer screenings, prenatal care and contraception.”
Where Lance once was perceived as a moderate, pro-choice Republican, his website now touts his “100 percent voting record with the National Right to Life Committee for his pro-life votes in the 112th Congress.”
Mitchell refuted assertions that Lance has changed his stances on abortion and marriage equity.
“It’s just not accurate. The record suggests otherwise,” wrote Mitchell. “Leonard has always supported limits on abortion even dating back to his days in Trenton. And he has always supported marriage between a man and a woman.”
Conversely, Lance’s chief of staff asked how Chivukula can defend “his 10-year record of voting against the interests of NJ-7 towns and how he can hope to represent a district that he does not even live in?”
“That’s not correct,” Chivukula said. “I voted for budgets (Gov.) Chris Christie came up with.”
Chivukula’s recent “yes” votes include increasing the minimum wage and giving state employees pay increases. He voted against the controversial health care and pension reform billed passed in the summer of 2011 and signed into law by Christie.
Regarding the fact that he resides in Franklin Township in Somerset County — which is not in the 7th district — Chivukula notes that the U.S. Constitution allows a candidate to run for any district as long as the candidate lives in the state. Plus, he asserts, he is very familiar with the district and has been representing its interests.
“I’ve been living in Somerset County for almost 30 years,” he said, noting parts of Somerset are in the 7th and that his hometown of Franklin Township borders the district.
“The most important thing Lance should be talking about is where you stand on issues,” Chivukula said.
He continually invokes the term “Tea Party” when discussing Lance. Lance is a registered Republican and defeated Tea Party-affiliated candidate David Larsen in the Republican Primary, winning by a margin of 60 percent to 40 percent.
According to Lance’s campaign website, the congressman has “voted 26 times to either fully repeal, defund, or dismantle portions of Obamacare” — formally known as the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010.
Lance also voted for U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget plan, calling it “a serious and honest approach to bringing fiscal sanity back to our Nation.”
Lance serves on the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee. He supports the Keystone Pipeline and off-shore drilling. However, he voted against letting companies drill off the coast of New Jersey.
Meanwhile, Mitchell contends that Chivukula has little hope of success in the district.
“Local Democrats had trouble finding somebody to challenge Congressman Lance in the general election,” he said.
Mitchell said Chivukula has his “eye on the 6th District,” which may open up soon if U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. decides to run for U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg’s seat, should Lautenberg decide not to run in 2014. Lautenberg is now 89.
Mitchell calls the rumors of Pallone’s ambitions “perhaps the worst-kept secret in New Jersey politics.”
“This allows Chivukula to get a race under his belt and raise funds that he could then use in another congressional race down the line,” Mitchell said. “But we have to assume he is running in the 7th District this year to win. And Leonard Lance is ready for a spirited race.”
Lance has amassed a healthy monetary edge over Chivukula. Through Sept. 30, Lance reported raising $1.2 million, compared with Chivukula’s $728,654. But Lance also had $400,972 cash on hand, compared to $140,920 for Chivukula.
Lance’s campaign debuted a new television ad titled “Principled” on Oct. 2. It promotes Lance as a legislator who fights “for lower taxes, a balanced budget and incentives for small businesses to create good-paying jobs.” The ad touts his role as author while in the state Legislature of the “Lance amendment,” which prohibits state borrowing without voter approval.
But Chivukula’s camp was the first to debut a post-Labor Day TV ad, touting the candidate as a problem solver. In the ad, subheadings tout Chivukula’s 18 years at Bell Labs and his platforms of “Access to Affordable Education,” “Cutting Taxes for Small Business” and “Protecting Medicare and Social Security.”
The last of three debates between the two is scheduled to air on Thursday, Oct. 25, from 11 a.m. to noon, on WRNJ radio (1510 AM, FM 92.7 and FM 104.7).
Two other candidates for the 7th District seat have not been a part of those debates. McKnight, 27, and Breen, 61, said they have not been contacted about participating.
However, the two have plenty to say — and both said they are meeting a lot of voters who are willing to listen.
“I’m doing this mostly because money has gotten so out of control,” Breen said, explaining why he is running.
“It’s like an arms race,” he added, noting that he ran for U.S. Senate in 2000 for very much the same reason. In that race, Jon Corzine won after spending $65 million on his campaign.
Breen says he is not raising money and has actually turned away endorsements from some special interest groups.
“If I get elected, I don’t want to be beholden to anyone.”
Breen said he has no “ill feelings” toward the major-party candidates, but “my major complaint is with the parties. They’re not representing me anymore.”
McKnight, who is seeking office for the first time, said he was inspired to run after questioning Lance about the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) at a meeting in January and being dissatisfied with Lance’s response.
McKnight has posted a “10 Step Plan to Fix America” on his Facebook page. The plan includes ending the war in Afghanistan and bringing troops home from all 130 American bases in foreign countries, repealing the National Defense Authorization Act and the Patriot Act, and pulling the United States out of the United Nations and NATO, among other controversial ideas. He also supports repealing the Affordable Care Act.
McKnight said his 10-step plan has been endorsed by U.S. Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas). Despite his Republican Party membership, Paul is widely known for his Libertarian views.
Breen, conversely, holds opinions more in line with the Democratic Party – he interned for Democratic U.S. Sen. Birch Bayh in college. But he characterized himself as “kind of middle of the road.”
Breen said he’d like to balance the budget and trim entitlement programs — to some degree. He said that Medicare and people entitled to Social Security shouldn’t be affected, but those receiving other entitlements, including unemployment payments, “should be retrained or should provide a service.”
Breen said he would like to grow jobs in New Jersey by investing in renewable energy and production. He also supports raising taxes on upper-income earners and wants to enact greater controls on the banking industry.
He takes a wait-and-see attitude on the health-care reform law, saying he agrees with its promises to lower the cost of caring for the uninsured. But, he said, if the law doesn’t do what it claims, “Scrap it.”