Two congressional candidates say they’ll revitalize Republican brand

“I don’t think the party’s done a very good job at reaching out to women,” said Dana Wefer of Bergen County.

It’s a bold claim about New Jersey’s GOP establishment. It’s also why Wefer says she switched party affiliations after spending 13 years as a Democrat. And, it’s the reason you’ll see her name on the Republican primary ballot a little less than a year from now for the U.S. Senate election.

“I believe that we’re in the midst of a political realignment. We go through them about once a generation, and I think it’s time for millennials and young people to start taking the reins of power within our government,” she said.

Wefer is one of only two Republican women who filed petitions to run for Congress in New Jersey. She and 7th Congressional District primary candidate Lindsay Brown are both millennials and former Democrats who joined the GOP in the last 18 months. They say the party has an image problem, and they’re the ones who can fix it.

“I looked around and I did not see millennials or women or millennial women in the House of Representatives with very, very, very few exceptions. And that’s a problem because millennials are the largest voting base right now, and women are 51 percent of the population, but we’re only 19.6 percent of Congress,” said Brown.

“After the 2016 election, I came to the conclusion that the Democratic Party is actually too corrupt to effectuate change with it, so I joined the Republican Party, and I’m looking forward to elevating women’s voices in the Republican Party and bringing the Republican Party back to the party where it used to be,” said Wefer.

Wefer is a 35-year-old attorney and mother, she’s held volunteer and appointed political positions, but never an elected office. Brown is a 29-year-old web developer from Clark, and they dismiss the idea of identity politics at play.

“I am very much a centrist. I’m socially moderate and fiscally conservative, which is what so many Republican voters are looking for and can’t find these days,” said Brown.

Brown is taking on incumbent Leonard Lance, perhaps the most moderate Republican member of the U.S. House. Her platforms could be perceived more left of center — single-payer health care, criminal justice reform, paid family leave.

Montclair State University Political Science Professor Brigid Harrison says there could be a bit of political naivety here.

“The reality is, in seeking federal office, there is a much larger political context that has to be acknowledged … within the Republican Party … the success has been won with candidates who espouse a more conservative view, and we need only look at the tea party and freedom caucus to suggest that,” said Harrison.

Both women say they’re looking to pull in unaffiliated voters. They could potentially tap into the white female vote that helped lift Trump to the presidency. When asked if the Republican Party needs to reinvent itself, Rep. Leonard Lance in a statement said:

“I favor a big tent Republican Party. As a party, we need to continue reaching out to many different groups, including women and young people. My campaign is dedicated to speaking to all voters in the 7th District.”

“I recognize that to the Republican base, I’m probably not a very attractive candidate in many ways because I was a Democrat for so long, and because I’m very centrist on the issues. The people who vote in primaries tend to be partisan, so one of the main messages I want to get out to people is that unaffiliated voters can vote and should vote in the primaries.”

The question is, will they?