FLEMINGTON – Ensconced in a Hunterdon County coterie of GOP allies and underscoring his record as a fiscal conservative, U.S. Rep. Leonard Lance (R-Clinton) formally kicked off his re-election bid this morning in the gutted and remodeled interior of the historic county courthouse where Bruno Hauptmann once went on trial for the Lindbergh baby murder.
“I think the actions of leadership on the Democratic side – of (Senate Majority Leader Harry) Reid and (Speaker Nancy) Pelosi – have not been in the bipartisan tradition,” said Lance, standing at the head of the wood-paneled courtroom wife wife, Heidi, at his side. “The attitude has been, ‘We won the election, we write the bill.’ I fundamentally disagree with that philosophy.”
Fronting his successful authorship of the Lance Amendment while he was a state senator, which forbids borrowing without voter approval, the socially moderate Lance referred to himself throughout the event as a fiscal conservative as he proudly noted his opposition in Congress to President Barack Obama’s $3.6 trillion budget, the $845 billion federal stimulus bill, an earmark spending bill and the public option healthcare reform bill.
Whatever Lindbergh era mysteries dog the town where the famed Union Hotel across the street now stands locked, its porch floorboards barren under a for sale sign on the Victorian brick exterior, Lance’s backers from all western frontier strains of the party radiated a lack of intrigue in solidly supporting the county’s respected elder statesman.
Nowhere was the united front factor better symbolized than in the front-and-center presence of state Sen. Michael Doherty (R-Washington Twp.), Lance’s successor and a Ron Paul Republican who going back to 2001 when he first won a 23rd District Assembly seat staked out the rightward reaches of the legislative district.
“Leonard Lance showed character when he properly stood up to his own party and to the governor (Christie Whitman) of his own party on the issue of debt limits,” said Doherty, coming out of the snowfall this morning to stand with Lance and accept the honorary co chairmanship of the congressman’s campaign.
“He was removed from the chairmanship of his committee, but fought for ten years to pass the Lance Amendment. I was proud to work with him and be a small part of that. Many people are concerned about Wall Street and the Federal Reserve, and Leonard Lance is a statesman and leader we need to audit the Federal Reserve.”
The conservative lawmaker who just a year ago seemed to channel his Army captaincy into a gruff KP Duty dress down of the GOP County Committee before coming up empty for the support of his party, Doherty appeared consciously to be less Warren County renegade than subdued, Lancified statesman.
He briefly treaded at the edges of the more recognizable Doherty, excoriating Obamacare as nationalized healthcare, but repeatedly came back to the middle class conscious Lance as a good fit for the district.
“I whole-heartedly support my good friend, Leonard Lance,” Doherty said.
Another ceremonial force at the podium was Assemblyman Erik Peterson (R-Franklin Twp.), who as a GOP primary presence in support of Lance arguably straddles the Hunterdon terrain of politics more convincingly than anyone present, for Peterson is both Lance’s protege and longstanding family friend, while also Doherty’s rival in terms of pro-life, pro-gun Republican credentials.
That profile – just as it does with Doherty – fairly smothers the Congressional District’s Tea Party element, which David Larsen of Tewskbury is trying to coalesce into focused GOP Primary support against Lance. As voiced by Larsen’s core of supporters at his formal launch last Friday night, the movement’s biggest beef with Lance is his vote in favor of the controversial cap and trade bill.
“I understand the concerns,” Lance acknowledged today. “But because the Obama administration did not make enough progress with (seeking some measures that would have strengthened the bill), the bill is dead in the Senate.”
The freshman congressman who drubbed Assemblywoman Linda Stender in their 2008 contest said he wouldn’t have supported a double back look at the bill without some of the add-ins he wanted to see Obama attain at an international summit in Copenhagen, however, “We need an energy policy to wean us off our dependency on foreign oil. I am a strong supporter of nuclear power.”
None among the politicians present was willing to give newcomer Larsen any props, or at least no one could admit to even knowing who he is or how he surfaced suddenly as part of the public discourse.
“No one’s ever heard of him,” said Hunterdon County Freeholder Director Will Mennen, like Larsen, a resident of Tewksbury.
“He never called me,” said Doherty. “Look, it’s a target-rich environment out there right now. Let’s not go after Republican statesmen like Leonard Lance. Let’s go after vulnerable Democrats like Rush Holt and John Adler.”
Moreover, several sources at today’s Hunterdon kickoff said they had heard that Larsen is not the only GOP primary challenger. Someone in Westfield is evidently diving into the race as a challenger to the Lance from the right, a point gleefully noted by a Lance supporter who’s convinced the more candidates present in a primary field would inure to Lance’s benefit.
Asked about Larsen in particular, Lance said, “It’s healthy in a democracy to have a debate on the issues.”
As to the specific intentions of the Tea Party movement, he squelched the notion that the harder right elements of the group are as discouraged with moderate Republicans as Democrats.
“If you read American History, on many occasions people have been outraged by one-party rule,” said the congressman, who at the end of last year had $347,966 cash on hand.
“What we have now is one-party rule that would attempt to over-legislate our lives.”
Even if Lance didn’t have Doherty on his team and lacked the more jagged edges of anti-Obama rherotic that laced his comments today, observers say Lance’s aggressive pursuit of the party’s hard right wouldn’t necessarily prove strategically viable here.
“Every moderate Republican in Congress is thinking about the potential of the Tea Party to hold their moderate records to task, but Lance in this district probably has less to worry about than others,” said Dr. Brigid Harrison, professor of political science at Montclair State University. “This district tends to be fiscally conservative and socially moderate. A primary challenge might be uncomfortable but I don’t think this is a district that in the majority is consistent with the main planks of the Tea Party.”
The Lance caravan headed into the snow toward Somerville and another endorsement ceremony with Lance’s predecessor, former U.S. Rep. Mike Ferguson, state Sen. Kip Bateman (R-Branchburg) and Bridgewater Mayor Patricia Flannery expected to be in attendance. Later this afternoon, the congressman will join state Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean, Jr. (R-Westfield) on the Union County leg of his district-wide kick-off.
“This is the hardest-working congressman I’ve ever seen, who’s thoughtful and smart and statesmanlike,” Assembly Minority Conference Leader Jon Bramnick (R-Westfield) said of Lance, a sentiment echoed on Bramnick’s Union County turf by former Scotch Plains Mayor Martin Marks.
“I’m supporting Leonard,” said Marks, who ran against Lance as the “cross the board” conservative candidate in the 2008 Republican Primary and came within 1,800 votes of beating Stender last year in a vie to grab her Assembly seat.
“I don’t agree with Leonard on every issue, but the only politician I do agree with all the time is the guy I see in the mirror every morning when I’m shaving.” Marks said.
The sole declared Democratic Party candidate in the 7th Congressional District is Ed Potosnak of Franklin Township, an aide to California Congresssman Mike Honda and virtual unknown in party circles, whose out-of-nowhere presence as the only willing Democratic candidate to date sends shivers of worry through party members who two years ago helped Obama win in Somerset County – the district’s centerpiece – and mostly signifies the party’s cowed condition just four years after Stender came close to jolting Ferguson out of office.
“We don’t see the presence of a high-profile and well-funded candidate here because the Democrats will be so concerned this year about shoring up their own re-election bids, protecting their own Democratic incumbents rather than trying to knock off Republican incumbents,” Harrison said.