The 7th Congressional District, where incumbent Republican Rep. Leonard Lance is trying to fight off Democratic challenger Tom Malinowski, is a true snapshot of wealthy, suburban America. The district includes multimillion-dollar homes with Manhattan views, farms with hills that gently roll down to the Delaware River and stately turn-of-the-century colonials, sprawling condo complexes and newly constructed McMansions in between.
But while it seems the center cannot hold in American politics, both Lance and Malinowski are trying to portray themselves as the moderate, non-ideologue in the race, hoping that voters in a centrist swing district edge their way.
Yet on certain issues, the candidates, reflecting the tough tenor of the times, are unafraid to take partisan rhetorical shots at each other, highlighting their policy differences. President Donald Trump looms large in the race, with Malinowski hoping voters identify Lance with a president who is unpopular in the district, while Lance takes every opportunity to distance himself without criticizing Trump, whose golf resort/summer White House is located in the district.
On the issues, Lance points to past votes of his which could be considered moderate. While not accepting Lance’s representation of his record, Malinowski argues that it doesn’t really matter how Lance votes if the Republican Party is still in power. Moderate policies, he says, will never make it to the floor.
Still, there are some issues where Lance, first elected in 2008, and Malinowski, a former State Department official, largely echo each other.
They are both against the construction of the PennEast natural-gas pipeline that would cut through Hunterdon County, which lies entirely within the 7th District. They both back infrastructure and transportation improvements, including the expansion of one-seat-ride NJ Transit Raritan Valley Line service to New York City.
Regarding abortion, Lance’s position has changed in recent years. A staunch pro-choice advocate when he was in the state Legislature, in Congress in 2011 he voted for an initiative that would cut all funding for Planned Parenthood, even to clinics that provide healthcare with no abortion services. However, Lance has pointed to the fact that he voted in favor of the most recent appropriations bill, which included funding for Planned Parenthood. Meanwhile, Malinowski has received the endorsements of Planned Parenthood Action Fund and NARAL Pro-Choice America.
Neither Lance nor Malinowski are in favor of the series of tariffs imposed during the Trump presidency.
Lance calls himself “a free-trader,” but says America should be especially tougher on China in order not to be taken advantage of. “China is terrible when it comes to intellectual property, but free trade is important to the district itself,” Lance said. “But in regards to tariffs, it should not exclusively be the responsibility of the executive branch.”
Malinowski agrees with Lance that our government should take a firmer economic stance with China. However, the Democrat also emphasizes a constant theme of his campaign — the negative effect of Trump’s imprint on policy, blotting the sensible initiatives of some Democrats and Republican moderates, including Lance.
“You don’t simultaneously go to war with Mexico, Japan, Australia, and the European Union. And treating Canada like an enemy is preposterous,” said Malinowski, referring to Trump’s ongoing battles with a range of countries over tariff policies. “We need to be building alliances.”
Lance and Malinowski yet again agree in principle that Trump’s sweeping federal tax law passed last year doesn’t help New Jersey. Its most onerous provision is the imposition of a $10,000 cap on the deduction for state and local taxes, known as SALT, one of the few forms of tax relief available in a state that has the highest property-tax burden in the nation. A recent Monmouth University poll showed that just 34 percent of 7th District voters approved of the tax plan, while 49 percent disapproved, with close to half believing that their federal tax bill will increase.
But then again, the candidates differ on how to stave off SALT’s deleterious impact on the district.
“My opponent favors repeal of the tax bill. I do not favor repeal, I favor its modification,” Lance said. “The corporate rate should be reduced — 35 percent is the highest in the industrial world. It’s uncompetitive. I also favor doubling the standard deduction. Many of my constituents will see lower taxes, but some will not.”
“Lance’s leadership in the House is moving forward with a bill that will make the loss of the property tax deduction permanent,” Malinowski said. “There is a zero percent chance that we can get back out of it if we elect a Republican majority in the House. Tax cuts going forward will predominantly benefit corporations and the highest earners.”
Lance often underscores that he has voted against the GOP majority on numerous issues. 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 President Barack Obama.
“I was one of a handful of people not to vote for the bill, because I did not think it was in the best interest of the United States, and I predicted that it would not pass the Senate, and it did not pass the Senate,” Lance said. “I also didn’t favor it for several reasons, including the modification regarding pre-existing conditions. I don’t think there is any chance we will be amending the law to exclude pre-existing conditions, but if we were, I would be opposed to it.”
Lance, however, consistently voted against the ACA after its introduction in 2009. A vocal opponent of the law after it was implemented, he repeatedly called for its repeal. He voted “yes” when the House Energy and Commerce Committee, of which he is a member, drafted its sections for the proposed Republican replacement, the AHCA.
Malinowski says that Lance’s vote was a result of strong protests against the ACA’s repeal seen at several town hall meetings before the final vote on the issue.
“The vast majority of the people I speak to in this district want us to improve the ACA, not gut it,” Malinowski said. “For years, [Lance] boasted of his opposition to the ACA. The Republican leadership in Congress has told us very clearly that if they win the midterm elections, they will seek to repeal the ACA again.”
“He voted for [the GOP replacement when it came up in] his committee. He voted against every single Democratic amendment to the repeal, including an amendment that would have included the protection of pre-existing conditions,” Malinowski continued. “He only changed his vote at the last minute once he realized how unpopular it was in the district, and once it was clear that the Republicans had the votes to pass the bill.”
Guns are another issue Lance points to as representative of his moderate approach. He has supported gun-control measures, including backing universal background checks, ending the ban on federal research into the effects of gun violence, and closing regulatory loopholes for gun shows. He touts his re-election endorsement by former U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords, a Democrat who survived a shooting, as proof that he can advocate sensible measures on guns while still strongly supporting the protection of Second Amendment rights.
“I would look to what Gabby Giffords’ group has done, and I think that’s proof in the pudding that I believe in common sense laws in this regard,” said Lance, who noted that he didn’t vote for the Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act, which would require states to honor concealed weapons permits for people who got them in other states, and co-sponsored legislation to ban bump stocks, which simulate the rate of fire of a fully automatic firearm. The proposed federal legislation has yet to be enacted into law.
“I don’t think the public should examine this issue based necessarily on what I say, or what my opponent says, but on what Gabby Giffords has said.”
Malinowski, who is also against concealed carry and supports a ban on bump stocks, countered that a Lance victory would contribute to a future failure to pass significant federal gun-control laws.
“There is a zero percent chance that any sensible gun safety legislation, including universal background checks, will pass the House of Representatives if Congressman Lance’s party wins the midterm election,” Malinowski said. “Now that he’s scared of losing, he is promising to sign on to legislation that his party will never allow to pass.”
“[Lance’s gun control proposals] will come to pass in the House regardless of the partisan balance in the next Congress,” Lance countered, citing the potential vote of the Problem Solvers Caucus, a group of 48 members of Congress divided equally across partisan lines who seek to create bipartisan cooperation on key policy issues. “We will have enough in our membership to put it over the top.”
A bipartisan solution in Congress regarding immigration reform has proven to be elusive. Lance maintains that he favors a path to citizenship for those affected by Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (“DACA”), the Obama-era policy that grants temporary lawful status and work permits to thousands of young migrants brought to this country through no choice of their own.
“Regarding their parents, who came here illegally as adults, I favor a path to permanent residency, to legalization, but not citizenship,” said Lance. “They disobeyed the law, and there are lots of people waiting in line legally to come into this country. We should maintain and promote the rule of law in this country.”
Malinowski asserts that DACA is under threat and he questions the legality of how immigration policy is currently being executed.
“I don’t know anyone here who wants to see children kidnapped from their parents to punish the parents for applying for asylum in America,” Malinowski said, referring to the recent action of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents when enforcing the current immigration laws. “[The immigration reform issue] is not solved because the Republican leadership in Congress will not allow a vote on a clean bill to solve it.”
The immigration debate has stirred up strong feelings about the demographic direction of a country where white people soon will no longer be the dominant majority. At a candidates’ debate last month, these visceral divisions came to the fore when Malinowski made his closing statement.
“The Republican Party right now, not in New Jersey so much, but in Washington, D.C., is having a very different kind of debate. It's having a debate about whether to be a white nationalist party or not,” said Malinowski on September 24 in Clark, comments that were booed by some Lance supporters. “We have a president who said that there were good people on both sides in Charlottesville. I'm sorry. It’s painful to hear, but it’s true."
Malinowski was referring to the protests that erupted in the Virginia college town in August 2017 in response to a white supremacist rally. At a news conference held after the events at Charlottesville, including the death of one anti-white-supremacy protestor, Trump referred to "very fine people on both sides.” Many people interpreted the president’s comments as an indication that he was sympathetic to white supremacy and to those whom some call “white nationalists.”
In an interview, Lance denied Malinowski’s inference that Trump, the head of the GOP, had given white nationalists a boost with his party’s imprimatur.
“I thought it was appalling that he would say there was a debate in the Republican Party about white nationalism. There is no debate,” Lance said. “The Republican Party believes in treating each person as an individual based upon his or her self-worth. If I might paraphrase Martin Luther King, Jr., it’s about the content of the character of the person, not the color of their skin. I reject white nationalism. We want to move the nation forward in a united fashion.”
“I would not ever attribute such attitudes to Congressman Lance. But these are the words of the president of the United States, and this is a reality that [Republicans] are facing,” Malinowski replied. “All I can say is that if the leader of my party were pulling it in that direction, I’d be fighting like hell to take it back.”
The same slings and arrows of outrage that are part of rhetorical partisan warfare this election season have landed in the 7th District. Lance and Malinowski sparred along partisan lines over the ultimately successful Supreme Court nomination of conservative Judge Brett Kavanaugh after he was accused of sexual assault. On nearly every issue, the fight between Lance and Malinowski seemingly goes back to Trump’s leadership style and his effect on policy.
It could be argued that as the Republican Party became more conservative, so did Lance. But Lance maintains that he is his own man, a moderate no matter how the chief executive chooses to execute power.
“I hope in the future, the president will Tweet more judiciously,” Lance said. “I do differentiate myself from President Trump’s style, but whoever the president of the United States is has the greatest responsibility for civility. I point out that I am an Eisenhower Republican, and I believe that the views that I represent are the views of the overwhelming majority of my constituents.”
Malinowski, however, believes that every time he steps into the ring against Lance, a match expected to be very close, the incumbent can’t escape from the man in his corner. According to a recent Monmouth University, Trump has a very high unfavorable rating in the district.
“Under President Trump, truth, justice, and the American way, as Superman liked to say, are very much under attack. And it’s not bulletproof,” Malinowski said. “I don’t care how Mr. Lance is positioning himself. His job is to effectively oppose policies that are inconsistent with our values. He has not done so.”