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Lance-Malinowski in CD-7: Outcome Now Depends on Ground Game

It's been all about money, message, and momentum in the 7th district. But who succeeds at getting voters to the polls could determine the winner

Leonard Lance & Tom Malinowski
Seven thousands votes separated Republican Rep. Leonard Lance, left, and Democrat Tom Malinowski, the winner.

As Republican incumbent Rep. Leonard Lance and Democratic challenger Tom Malinowski wrap up their closely-fought and even more closely-watched 7th Congressional District campaign, they’re each hoping that a trio of money, message and momentum leads to victory.

There is a considerable funding gap between Lance and Malinowski. According to the last Federal Election Commission report of October 17, Lance has raised $2,224,534 and has $466,749 cash on hand. The report for Malinowski indicates that he has raised $6,121,515 and has $834,275 cash on hand.

Much of that money is being spent on campaign television commercials. These televised ads are an effective but always daunting financial proposition both in statewide elections and in this north-central New Jersey congressional district, which is in the very expensive New York media market. Hence, Lance and Malinowski are both trying to get the most proverbial bang for their buck.

Lance, a former state Assemblyman and Senator who was first elected to Congress in 2008, has laced his ads with claims that Malinowski has too little government experience. Lance’s ads also call Malinowski too far to the left to effectively represent the wealthy, centrist, and suburban 7th Congressional District.

In a television ad titled “Proven Leader,” supporters of Lance on a sunny suburban street repeat that he is bipartisan, while the voice-over states that he is a “problem solver.” The term is a nod to Lance’s membership in the Problem Solvers Caucus, a group of 48 members of Congress divided equally across party lines who seek bipartisan cooperation on key policy issues.

Traditional GOP accusations

Leonard Lance
Credit: Mark J. Bonamo
The 7th district's Republican Rep. Leonard Lance, center, on the campaign trail in Westfield, Union County.

The title of another Lance television ad, “Lifelong Progressive Democrat,” is exactly how the Republican incumbent is trying to brand his Democratic challenger. The voice-over states that Malinowski is a “far left liberal” who supports “dangerous policies that make families less safe” and result in “higher taxes” — accusations that the GOP have used against Democrats for decades.

Malinowski, a former Assistant Secretary of State under former President Barack Obama, has used his ads to employ a strategy used by Democrats around the nation during this year’s critical contest for control of Congress. The Malinowski television ad “Ordinary” opens with media imagery that includes President Donald Trump sitting in the Oval Office, combined with the announcer ominously saying that “these aren't typical times.” This optic and message are a not so subtle way to try to link Lance to the often controversial Trump. According to a recent Monmouth University poll, Trump has a very high unfavorable rating in the district.

Tom Malinowski
Credit: Malinowski campaign
On the campaign trail: Tom Malinowski, Democratic candidate in the 7th Congressional District

Another Malinowski ad, titled “Sixty Times,” is a direct reference to the number of times Lance voted against the Obama-backed Affordable Care Act (ACA). Lance 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.

Lance has frequently 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 ACA. But in the Malinowski ad, the announcer intones that Lance’s earlier votes represent “sixty times that Lance could have been with us [on healthcare] but wasn't. That's a pattern... Leonard Lance knew exactly what he was doing.”

Now it’s all about turning out voters

Recent polls indicate a very tight race between Lance and Malinowski. 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).

The most recent CD-7 poll demonstrates how the extremely close race now balances on the razor's edge. The October 31 Monmouth poll has Malinowski ahead with a 47 percent to 44 percent lead, with 6 percent of voters undecided, an overall tally well within the 5.2 percent margin of error. As expected, voter turnout will play a particularly decisive role in this election. One model of the Halloween poll indicates that if there is a Democratic surge, Malinowski’s potential margin of victory widens to 48 percent-43 percent, with the same percentage of voters undecided. However, another model shows that if there is low turnout, the race is dead even at 46 percent, with 5 percent of voters undecided.

Matthew Hale, associate professor of political science at Seton Hall University, believes the only numbers that matter now are how many of each candidate’s voters get to the polls.

“This election will come down to who shows up. Anything that the candidates can do to get people to the polls, including driving people to the polls and having a really significant get-out-the-vote ground game, is especially critical in this race,” Hale said. “I think it’s that close.”

How Lance and Malinowski reach their respective voter targets will also be a major deciding factor.

Pieces on the national chessboard

“The key is that the Democrats in the district need a plan to get the swing Republicans to come out — the people who don't like Donald Trump and who are going to vote for a Democrat for the first time in their life,” Hale said. “The Republicans haven’t had to have a huge get-out-the-vote push in this district for a long time. They have to build one to get their base out.”

“The Democrats seem to have an enthusiasm edge among Democrats,” Hale added. “They just have to translate that to the swing Republicans.”

Lance and Malinowski are now partisan pieces on the national chessboard for control of Congress. As for who wins, both in the 7th Congressional District and across the United States, one name could equal checkmate for one side or the other — Trump.

“I think the driving force in this election is how people feel about Donald Trump," Hale said. “There's a lot of ways that waves can come. You can have a little wave about the size of a pond, or you can have a tsunami. There’s certainly going to be a blue wave. It’s just a question of how big it is, and where it washes up.”

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