New Jersey’s 7th Congressional district is turning out to be a litmus test for the state’s Republican party. The three primary candidates represent three vastly different facets of the GOP today: A far-right doctor running on a strict religious and pro-gun platform, a five-term incumbent elected for his moderate conservative views who has been accused of moving further right as the party changes, and a young former Democrat running on a socially moderate but fiscally conservative platform.
U.S. Rep. Leonard Lance, the five-term Republican incumbent, is facing off against Dr. Raafat Barsoom an Egyptian immigrant working as an emergency and trauma doctor at Hunterdon Medical Center and Lindsay Brown, a millennial digital project manager from Clark. Lance is a well-heeled and confident self-described moderate who said he is running on his congressional record and believes his votes reflect “the views of the overwhelming majority of this district.”
In his initial years in Congress and the state Legislature, Lance was known as a moderate Republican. But in recent years, Lance’s critics have accused the Congressman of adopting more conservative values as the right-wing Tea Party gained more power in Washington. He continually decried the Affordable Care Act during the Obama years, and took other conservative positions.
However, once his constituents took issue with the agenda of President Donald Trump, Lance did something of an about-face, voting against the Republican tax bill and its plan to repeal the Affordable Care Act. He was one of the few sitting Republican congressman that agreed to face angry consituents in town meetings, and has been willing to defend his positions to those opposed to Trump. Lance now says he is firmly a moderate conservative.
Scoping out the 7th
The 7th district includes Hunterdon County and portions of Essex, Morris, Somerset, Union, and Warren counties as well. It’s a long-time Republican district that Democrats are eyeing to flip in the general election. It went for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential race. Indeed, the Republican voter advantage, which at one time was as high as 29,997 is now down to 10,812.
The Cook Political Report, which had previously rated Lance a favorite for reelection, recently designated the race a tossup, noting that in the general election, the Democrats had a slightly better chance to win.
Lance, however, does not think the region will be swept up by the “blue wave,” noting voters in the district turned out in favor of Republican candidate Kim Guadagno during last year’s gubernatorial election.
It may or may not be because of Lance’s changing positions , but he has two primary challengers, each taking wildly divergent paths.
On the right wing
Barsoom states on his campaign website that he is a religious Christian who supports Donald Trump and wants to uphold the president’s “Make America Great Again” policy in Congress.
He supports “traditional family values” in which a “mother and father honor God” and writes on his website he would “fight to restructure our educational system to include the values of the traditional family.”
At a recent town hall event on gun control following the tragic shooting in Parkland, FL, Barsoom said he supports the Second Amendment and said he believes every lawful gun owner should receive a concealed carry permit automatically, including teachers. He said it would make potential school shooters “think a thousand times.”
Barsoom’s platform also includes a policy to federally regulate property taxes for a maximum of 1.5 percent statewide, as well as a plan to reduce healthcare costs by requiring medical committee approval for any malpractice lawsuit. That, he claims, will lower healthcare costs by an average of 30 percent. Malpractice reform has been a popular Republican talking point for years, but Texas’s experiments with tort reform has failed to drive down such healthcare costs for consumers.
Barsoom did not respond to repeated interview requests.
The socially progressive Republican
To the far left of Barsoom is Lindsay Brown, a self-labeled “recovering Democrat” who is running on a socially progressive but fiscally conservative platform emphasizing gender equity and a single-payer healthcare system.
“I panicked after Trump’s election,” Brown said “I wanted to run for the seat that could make the most impact … in order to make some progress on what our leadership looks like, we need to work within our party to bring in more women more people of color. The Republican party is the party of diversity of ideas and I genuinely believe that.”
Brown’s platform is anchored by a single-payer/Medicare-for-all healthcare model that she says would not be government-provided healthcare, but government funded through a nonprofit.
“The way we’re doing it now isn’t working,” Brown said. She added that she is “pragmatic that single payer is not going to happen overnight” but said she favors a public option to expand the eligibility for Medicaid or Medicare programs to everyone without an automatic opt-in. In a recent Facebook Live Town Hall video, Brown floated the idea of a co-op model for private practices: instead of going through insurance, an individual would pay their primary-care doctor a “reasonable monthly fee to cover all of your care,” instead of large payments only when someone needs a service or exploratory test.
Brown’s infrastructure policies involve “bringing in federal dollars geared toward rebuilding infrastructure in New Jersey,” but most importantly she said she “would like to champion a new WPA (Works Progress Administration) public works program that gets Americans back to work,” and would help recently graduated students pay off student-loan debt. The original WPA policy was implemented in 1935 by President Franklin Roosevelt; over eight years, it put an estimated 8.5 million Americans to work.
Brown said she thinks her campaign will stir up moderate Republican voters and send them to the polls in her favor, but her main challenge is coming up against a long-term incumbent without party backing.
“I recognize that I’m running up against a lot of really entrenched machinery and it’s going to take more than one election to break that,” Brown said. “But I wouldn’t run if there wasn’t a chance.”
Lance has represented the 7th district since 2008 and previously served as a member of the New Jersey State Senate beginning in 2002, acting as Minority Leader from 2004 to 2008. In Trenton, he built up a reputation for being a bipartisan lawmaker willing to reach across the aisle on environmental and social issues. In Washington, however, his views tend to fall in line with the newly transformed Republican party more often than not. According to a FiveThirtyEight analysis Lance’s votes have fallen in line with the president’s position 88.9 percent of the time.
In an interview with NJ Spotlight, Lance said he views the analysis differently. He said many of those votes include measures relating to the appropriations process and efforts to balance the budget, which he noted were necessary to keep the government funded.
“Just because President Trump signed (something) into law does not mean it comes from the Trump White House or the presidency,” Lance said. “I’m proud to support those matters. If I’m criticized for funding the government, I plead guilty. I favor funding the government.”
Lance’s voting record has also drawn criticism from those to his right who cite his “no” votes on the GOP tax overhaul (both the conference committee version and final version) and American Healthcare Act of 2017 that would repeal the ACA as evidence that the congressman is not conservative enough.
In terms of a tax bill, Lance said he would like to see it modified to continue deductibility of state and local taxes in their entirety. He said he fought hard to oppose the SALT cap and that was one of the primary reasons why he voted down the final bill. Lance added that the GOP tax bill would add significantly to the federal debt, and as a “fiscal hawk” he could not support any legislation that exacerbated the national debt.
As far as healthcare goes, Lance said he (like Barsoom) favors medical malpractice insurance reform and said he also wants to continue Medicaid expansion, something New Jersey has continued to do.
Lance’s stance on abortion has also changed over the years. A pro-choice Republican for years in the State House, in 2011 he recorded a vote that would cut all funding for Planned Parenthood, even to clinics that provide healthcare with no abortion services. But Lance noted that he voted in favor of the most recent appropriations bill, which included funding for Planned Parenthood. Ideally, Lance said, the women’s health organization should be split into two entities: one providing health services to women, and another handling abortions. However, he added “that is unlikely to occur” and emphasized that above all else, he supports the Hyde Amendment that would prohibit federal expenditures for abortion procedures.
Even as civil unrest rages in the Middle East over the Trump administration’s controversial decision to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, Lance said he firmly supports the decision as co-chair of the Republican Israel Caucus.
He wrote in a statement “I commend the Trump Administration for moving the embassy to Jerusalem, a promise that had been made by the Clinton, Bush, and Obama Administrations. I will work in Congress in support of peace and security.”
To Lance’s critics, this back and forth signifies a politician desperate to bend to the whims of the party — moving more to the right when challenged by a Tea Party candidate in 2010, and to the left as the Trump administration alienates moderates. To the congressman, however, these changes are evidence of his bipartisanship.
“I am confident that my views are the views of a significant majority,” Lance said. “I am a moderate conservative, I certainly do not share the leftist views of the three Democrats,” and as for Brown he said “the young woman who is running, I would call her views very liberal.”
Who’s in the money?
While their views may compete, in terms of funding, Lance is leaving his primary opponents in the dust. According to the most recent Federal Election Commission filings, Barsoom has $1,100 in cash on hand while Brown has $1,966 all from individual donors. Lance, in contrast, has $849,998. Most of that came from political action committees and top donors from the pharmaceuticals and health professionals industry, including Celgene Corp and Allergan PLC, as well as telecom giant AT&T.
Brown said that funding is her main challenge at this point. She said the “money influence and the machine” behind Lance is propelling him towards reelection but it’s a challenge she’s eager to rise to.
“I’m optimistic but pragmatic,” Brown said. “if I don’t win this one, there’s no losing. There will be other opportunities.”