If the 2016 cycle has had one prevailing theme, it has been widespread public dissatisfaction with the Washington status quo. Republican congressman Leonard Lance of New Jersey’s seventh district has had to edge to the right of his once moderate positions on issues like the environment while suffering from one of the lowest effectiveness ratings in the House. Lance’s conservative voting record will be his sole defense when two fellow Republicans go after his seat in the primary this year.
Is that wealth of competition a sign that Lance’s best days are behind him, or will hopefuls David Larsen and Craig Heard simply undermine each other’s chances against Lance?Though his online activity has reflected supporters’ 50-50 split between Ted Cruz and Donald Trump, Larsen bet the farm on an early Cruz endorsement back in January. At that time, Governor Chris Christie was still in the running.
This will be Larsen’s fourth race Lance since the congressman took office in 2009. He lost to Lance by only 2,592 during his last bid in 2014, the third closest primary loss by a non-incumbent that year. Lance has kept mum on an endorsement after supporting Governor Christie through his unsuccessful showing in New Hampshire.
“It’s probably going to be a tough year, in particular for incumbents,” said Fairleigh Dickinson University pollster Krista Jenkins. She said that while New Jersey skews centrist enough across party lines that an early endorsement for the hard-right, evangelical Cruz probably won’t make a dent, the down ballot effect this year will be anyone’s guess.
“That’s not to say that it’s going to be a revolutionary year, but depending on who’s at the top of the ticket and how that mobilizes people to turn out, I think that could suggest a more difficult road relative to other years,” Jenkins said of incumbents like Lance.
Monmouth University’s Patrick Murray agreed that any endorsement from a competitor will pale next to the unpredictable effects of high Republican turnout in the primary. Whether that turnout comes from pro-Trump insurgents or Republican Trump detractors is still up in the air.
“I don’t know who he would endorse that would help him in any way, shape or form. Leonard Lance generally wins these things on his own merits,” Murray said. “We’re going to see very high turnout on the Republican side, and it’s not clear what kind of voter that’s going to bring out.”
Bill Killion, Lance’s campaign director, took a swipe at what he described as the Larsen campaign’s indecisiveness. Larsen has stuck to a pro-insurgency message, only outright opposing establishment favorite John Kasich.
“Even on their fourth go-around they don’t seem to know what they’re doing,” Killion said, pointing to Cruz and Lance’s mutual public service backgrounds. “There’s a lot of similarities between Cruz and Leonard, so it’s hard for Larsen to really reconcile why he’s never endorsed Leonard after the primary before.”
Heard, who stands to detract from Lance and Larsen and has not decided on a presidential candidate yer, said that he is running to win and not to split the vote in either direction.
“I feel that the establishment is not respected, the congress, that eight percent approval rating. Leonard is conservative, but more of a moderate,” Heard said. “I don’t think this is the year for entitlement.
“I’m entering the race because a career politician with three generations of family in politics does not give anyone an entitlement to feel they should be reelected,” he added of Lance.
One of Lance’s most important political allies and arguably the most conservative man in the legislature, Senator Mike Doherty (R-23) was also the first elected official in New Jersey to offer Trump an official endorsement. He had his doubts that coming out strong for Cruz would play well here in the Garden State.
“My understanding is half of Larsen’s supporters like Trump and half of Larsen’s supporters like Cruz,” Doherty said. “I don’t think Cruz is going to do well in New Jersey, especially after his vote against Superstrom Sandy aid, and his calling Donald Trump having ‘New York Values.’”
“Ted Cruz needs to stop talking like a televangelist,” he added of the Texas senator’s appeal.