Republican incumbent Rep. Leonard Lance and Democratic challenger Tom Malinowski tested each other’s mettle in a debate where they strived to show who is the true moderate in the 7th Congressional District. In a national political environment where the middle of the road is a hard row to hoe, Lance and Malinowski are looking to win over voters in one of the districts designated as key to determining the partisan battle for control of Congress.
The race in the 7th district, which is centrist, wealthy and suburban, is one of the most closely contested in New Jersey and the nation, one of about three dozen districts analysts believe could shift control of Congress from Republican to Democrat.
In last night’s debate, the candidates went back and forth on a range of issues — including healthcare, taxes, and gun control — that are both local in impact and national in scope. Lance, first elected in 2008, and Malinowski, a former State Department official, fought to differentiate themselves while trying to veer neither too right nor too left.
The tone was polite, but the tenor was tense on some of the policy issues that matter most to 7th district voters. Healthcare was one of the main issues where Lance and Malinowski sparred at the debate, televised statewide from the NJTV studios in Newark and livestreamed on NJ Spotlight, a key partner of the event.
Lance has repeatedly stated that 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. 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.
The congressman defended his earlier votes against Obamacare by referring to someone whose name came up often during the hour-long debate.
“I was a sponsor of a moderate Republican bill in 2009 that never saw the light of day because [former Democratic Speaker of the House] Nancy Pelosi would not let it get on the floor,” Lance said. “That bill made sure that there was no denial of coverage because of pre-existing conditions.”
Lance maintained that any future potential repeal and replacement of the ACA would preserve the protection of pre-existing conditions, and that he would vote in favor of keeping them.
But Malinowski, referring to the Trump administration’s legal argument that protection of coverage for pre-existing conditions should be ruled unconstitutional, attacked Lance’s more than 60 votes against the ACA, saying that any protection for pre-existing conditions in the proposed GOP bill was “categorically untrue.”
“We need to be honest about this — you’re running away from your record because you’re afraid of losing to a Democrat,” Malinowski said, also citing Lance’s “yes” vote in committee for the AHCA meant to get rid of Obamacare. “And if there is a Republican majority, they will vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act.”
Lance and Malinowski also diverged over gun control. Lance noted his support for moderate gun-control measures, including backing universal background checks. He noticeably referred to his re-election endorsement by former U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords, a Democrat who survived a shooting, as proof he can advocate for sensible measures on guns while still being a strong supporter of Second Amendment rights, something he sees as not being “mutually inconsistent.”
“Her support speaks for itself,” Lance said, naming Giffords several times.
Malinowski countered by noting his endorsement earlier on the day of the debate by the Brady Campaign to End Gun Violence, leaders in the national effort to end gun violence.
“The universal background checks that Congressman Lance now says that he supports... has absolutely no chance if the Republicans retain the majority,” Malinowski said. “In your past campaigns, you proudly campaigned on your opposition to universal background checks.”
Both Lance and Malinowski chided a key provision of President Donald Trump’s sweeping federal tax law passed last year — 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.
Lance noted that 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, would work to remove the cap.
But Malinowski checked Lance not only by again raising the specter of the continuance of a Republican majority that would make permanent the tax deduction cap. He went on to question if the Problems Solvers Caucus, of which Lance is a member, can be effective in challenging any of Trump’s plans.
“If you think the Problem Solvers Caucus can do it, you can do it right now. You have 24 members who could force a vote on that kind of bill,” Malinowski said. “Those members are not with you. You cannot pass that kind of bill. I can.”
The overall civility of both candidates underscored the idea that Trump’s leadership style has often shattered the politesse normally expected from a president.
Lance stated that he has treated political friend and foe alike with courtesy. As proof of this goodwill, he cited his recent ranking as the 13th most bipartisan member of Congress out of 435 members.
“My record of bipartisanship is well-known,” said Lance, calling himself a centrist that has real appeal among the mostly moderate voters of the 7th district as he made his final appeal for re-election. “I am confident that my views are the views of the overwhelming majority of the voters in this district,” he said.
In his summation of why he holds the mantle of moderation in a key swing district, Malinowski pointedly noted both numbers — and his rival’s track record — for why he should take Lance’s seat.
“You’ve been named the 13th most bipartisan member of Congress. You’ve also been listed at the fifth least effective member of Congress,” Malinowksi said, contending that Lance has “given up” trying to pass legislation that truly goes against the Trump agenda. “Saying that the president shouldn’t tweet as much is not enough. We need a new party in control of Congress, with new leadership, that will be able to get something done.”