On a recent Sunday morning at Code 593 Café in downtown Wharton a local crowd was enthusiastically anticipating hearing from Tom Malinowski, the Democratic candidate in New Jersey’s 7th Congressional District. The owners come from Ecuador, the country of Latitude Zero, the geographical center of the world. And now, Malinowski’s run against his Republican rival, incumbent Rep. Leonard Lance, is New Jersey’s Ground Zero for the partisan fight to control Congress.
“We all know what’s at stake here in this election. We are in a very lucky position, because we are, for once, a swing district,” said Malinowski, highlighting the 7th’s status as one of about two dozen districts prognosticators believe could flip the control of Congress from Republican to Democrat. “A few hundred votes could determine where this country goes at a pivotal moment in our political history,” the challenger said.
At one end, the 7th Congressional District starts at Millburn, the sole Essex County municipality in the district. It trickles west into parts of Union County and fans out vertically to include parts of Morris and Somerset counties. The district then rolls west as it takes in parts of Warren County and all of Hunterdon County, ending on the banks of the Delaware River.
The district, where you can buy a fur coat in Short Hills on one side and apples from a Milford farm stand on the other, is a mix of suburban, exurban and rural communities. This socioeconomic mix could provide a challenge for politicians seeking a unifying theme on the campaign trail. Lance, a former state Assemblyman and Senator who was first elected to Congress in 2008, has so far managed to find a balance at the ballot box, winning by wide margins every two years. But recent presidential elections indicate a potential swing district. Democrat Barack Obama won the 7th in the 2008 presidential election, Republican Mitt Romney triumphed in 2012, and Democrat Hillary Clinton came out on top in 2016.
Polls show that the race is tight and the district could turn from red to blue. One new poll stands out: A Monmouth University poll released on September 20 shows Malinowski with a 47 percent to 39 percent edge over Lance, with 12 percent of voters undecided. A recent New York Times/Siena College poll had Lance up 45 percent to 44 percent over Malinowski with 10 percent undecided (a 4.8 percent margin of error).
Although Lance says he is bipartisan, his support for the Republican agenda in recent years has angered many of his more progressive constituents. There have been protests in front of his Westfield congressional office almost every evening since the primary election in June, with local progressive groups each taking a turn. They carry protest signs and wave to cars passing by the office on the busy road.
Lance claims he is a moderate in touch with district voters, who are often socially liberal, yet fiscally conservative. Indeed, that had been his reputation in the state Legislature and his first few years in Congress. But as the Republican Party became more conservative, so did he. Still, he is one of only 20 Republicans who voted against the passage of the GOP-sponsored American Health Care Act (AHCA) of 2017 bill, which was meant to replace the Affordable Care Act (ACA) backed by Obama.
Yet, Lance voted against the birth of the ACA in 2009 and has since voted repeatedly to repeal it. He was a vocal opponent of the law for years after it was implemented, vowing for its repeal. He voted “yes” when the House Energy and Commerce Committee, one of two panels charged with putting together the Republican replacement, the AHCA, drafted its sections of the bill.
But during the protests opposing the ACA’s repeal, Lance changed his rhetoric and ultimately his vote. He bore the brunt of a fiery response at several town hall meetings held before the final House vote. Angry crowds condemned the end of Obamacare, which could have meant that 500,000 New Jerseyans would lose their healthcare, according to a study by New Jersey Policy Perspective, a progressive research group.
Lance was credited with facing his constituents at town halls before his final Obamacare vote, unlike some other Republican congressmen. And as he prepared to campaign on a wet weekday afternoon in Westfield, he said the perception that he had changed his position on healthcare was wrong.
“I don’t think my views have changed. My views are that fundamental legislation in this country has to occur through bipartisan cooperation,” said Lance, 66. “That was not true in 2010, when the Affordable Care Act was passed by a party-line vote with Democrats controlling both houses of Congress and with a Democratic president. The same thing happened again last year when the Republicans controlled both houses with a Republican president. I am the most bipartisan Republican in the house delegation from New Jersey.”
Malinowski, a former Assistant Secretary of State under Obama, was not diplomatic when assessing Lance’s stance on healthcare. He challenges Lance’s record on the Affordable Care Act, claiming that political pressure, rather than true policy beliefs, shapes the incumbent’s decisions.
“I do not want to go back to a time when people with pre-existing conditions have to struggle just to get health insurance,” Malinowski, 52, said, a reference to the Trump administration’s argument in a recently filed court brief that Obamacare’s protections for pre-existing conditions should be ruled unconstitutional. “Congressman Lance more than 60 times voted to repeal, or gut, those protections for the people of his district. The only time he voted against doing that was when he knew that his party had the votes to pass the bill.”
“I give him credit for facing his constituents and taking their questions,” Malinowski said. “The problem is, people don’t like his answers.”
Lance’s campaign message also targets a member of Malinowski’s party as a reason why he should be re-elected.
“My opponent is a part of the Menendez-Malinowski team,” Lance said, linking his challenger to U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ), who survived a federal indictment for bribery and other corruption charges when his trial ended in a hung jury. The Senate Ethics Committee later “severely admonished” the veteran Hudson County politician after they determined he had improperly accepted gifts from a South Florida donor, and then advocated for the donor's personal and business interests.
Lance said that he is “100 percent supportive” of Bob Hugin, Menendez’s Republican opponent in this year’s Senate election, noting that Hugin lives in his district and that he knows him well.
“I think it’s somewhat pathetic that after 10 years in Congress, Leonard Lance can’t run on his record, and instead is trying to sneak through on Bob Hugin’s coattails. It’s not going to work for him,” replied Malinowski, whose work at the State Department included efforts to stop the flow of global corruption. “He’s our congressman. He needs to account for himself. He can try all he wants to make this about someone else, but it’s not. It’s about him and me.”
New Jersey’s 7th Congressional District is a key battlefield that is part of a nationwide front. The result will help determine if the “blue wave” Democrats believe will deliver the 23 seats needed to regain control of Congress actually happens.
The divided district is a snapshot of a divided nation, evidenced by the use of a five-letter word on opposite ends of the district.
“I have a problem with Trump. If you don’t do the right thing, then you should be done,” said Marc Harris, of Wharton, who was among the crowd that came to hear Malinowski speak in his Morris County hometown. “Checks and balances need to be restored.”
“I think Donald Trump is not doing a great job, but he’s changing things, and he’s getting people jobs,” said Valerie Ricciardi, who works in a diner in Westfield, in Union County, next door to where the constant protests have occurred. “He’s the president. Get over it. There’s nothing more you can do about it.”
Lance has lived in his district his whole life. He was raised in Glen Gardner and lives in Clinton Township, both in Hunterdon County. His father, Wesley Leonard Lance, was a state assemblyman and senator before him. Just before he campaigned in downtown Westfield, holding his umbrella over a female supporter’s head in the rain, he looked ahead to decision day.
“This is a challenging, competitive race. But if my opponent wanted to run for Congress, he should have run to be the district delegate in Washington, D.C.,” Lance said. “I am confident that my views are the views of the overwhelming majority of the residents of this district.”
Malinowski lived the first six years of his life in Poland before his family immigrated to America. He was raised in Princeton. After his job in the Obama administration ended, he returned to New Jersey last year “because it’s home,” then decided to run for the first time. He lives in Rocky Hill, in Somerset County, 10 minutes from the house he grew up in. Malinowski sees his campaign as the extension of a key moment in his life.
“It’s a continuation of an oath that I took when I was 11 years old the day I was sworn in at the courthouse in Newark to be a citizen of the United States,” Malinowski said. “I took that oath again when I was sworn in to serve at the State Department. All my life, I’ve not been interested in being something. I’ve been interested in doing something.”
Editor’s note: This story has been changed after it was originally published, to add material about poll results.