President Donald Trump’s explicitly racialized closing argument in support of Republicans up for election has put even the man behind the infamous Willie Horton campaign ad to blushing shame. But while thousands of troops laying miles of barbed concertina wire along the U.S. southern border may motivate Trump’s base to show up to the polls on Tuesday, the GOP’s full-throated embrace of hard-right nationalist messaging could seal the fate of moderate suburban Republicans.
Once-safe red congressional seats, like the one held by New Jersey Rep. Leonard Lance, are now up for grabs by Democrats who charge that these one-time centrists are becoming too entangled in the president’s right-wing agenda to represent their districts.
“I don’t see Republicans like Lance, who claim moderation, making any effective, concerted effort to lead their party back from where the president has taken it,” Tom Malinowski, a Democrat and former assistant secretary of state who hopes to defeat Lance on Tuesday, told The Daily Beast. “He will occasionally express mild disapproval of something President Trump has done, but I don’t see him leading opposition, I don’t see him attempting in any systematic way to change the way his party has gone.”
Lance and moderate Republicans in the state didn't return requests for comment.
In midterm elections past, New Jersey’s Seventh Congressional District has been the kind of constituency on which the Republican Party built its majority. Encompassing much of northern New Jersey, the district is suburban, majority white, and has the fifth-highest median household income of any congressional district in the United States. The district hasn’t sent a Democrat to Congress since 1980, and has broken for Republican presidential candidates in three of the past five elections.
President Trump is even a part-time resident: Trump National Golf Club, the president’s functional summer home, is located in Bedminster.
But while Lance, a Republican running for his sixth term, is a relative moderate and personally popular in the district—he has backed bills to protect special counsel Robert Mueller and expand hate crimes prevention—many in the district can no longer distinguish him from the president’s more extreme policies.
Those brief endorsements of issues appealing to centrists, Malinowski told The Daily Beast, should count for little in the eyes of voters who expect results over rhetoric.
“Taking a position is not an achievement—an achievement is when you change something,” Malinowski said. “He’s bipartisan when it doesn’t matter, and he’s partisan when it matters.”
Even the bill to protect Mueller’s investigation, Malinowski said, amounts to little more than virtue signalling.
“That bill to protect Bob Mueller isn’t going anywhere,” Malinowski said, with Republicans in control of the House and Senate. “He gets to claim he’s protecting Bob Mueller, because he knows he’ll never have to cast a vote for it.”
In the home stretch of the 2018 midterm election campaign, the Republican Party has largely abandoned a strategy of highlighting a humming economy and its passage of a trillion-dollar tax bill, choosing instead to frame the campaign’s final days as a struggle for America’s supposed ethnic identity. That pivot to identity politics has turned off centrist Republicans—like those that have determined the fate of candidates in the New Jersey Seventh for decades.
In a Monmouth University poll released on Wednesday, three-quarters of likely voters in the district said that President Trump is a very important factor in their vote for House representation—not good news in a district where 45 percent of likely voters strongly disapprove of the president.
“This is a rare district in Monmouth’s polling where we actually see the enthusiasm gap between Democrats and Republicans getting larger rather than smaller,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute. “The choice for voters in this district seems to fall along the lines of whether they like their congressman more or dislike the president more.”
That same poll found Malinowski leading Lance by three points—a statistical dead heat, but a major cause for concern for the Lance camp, considering he won his fifth term by double digits in 2016. That year, Hillary Clinton won the district by less than two points.
Malinowski, a Rhodes scholar who spent the majority of his career working in international relations and human rights, is primed to draw in those disaffected centrist Republicans and independents. Two Republican mayors have already endorsed his candidacy, in a state where crossing powers that be has a history of sparking vengeance.
“I’ve met a lot of independents and Republicans along the way, and many of them have become convinced that Lance cannot be an effective champion of New Jersey issues, and that he can’t be an effective check on the more extreme things that the president is doing,” Malinowski said. “I’m somebody who fundamentally does share their values, even if we do not agree on everything.”
The district’s frustrations with Trump extend beyond the president’s fixation on immigration issues. The $1.5 trillion tax bill passed by Republicans last year—the president’s only major legislative accomplishment—is strongly disapproved of in the district, in large part due to its near-elimination of the state and local tax deduction. In New Jersey, one of the most highly taxed states in the nation, the loss of those deductions has cost households thousands of dollars.
That frustration means Lance can’t lean on the part of Trump’s record that would generally appeal to well-to-do suburban voters.
“Tax policy is usually a slam dunk issue for Republican candidates. But Lance can’t escape voter discontent with this GOP plan, even though he voted against it,” said Murray, noting that 54 percent of the district’s likely voters disapprove of the tax plan, up from 49 percent in September.
“In New Jersey, taxes usually favor Republicans as an issue, so that bill changed the equation,” Malinowski said.
Another strike against Lance is the president’s personal relationship with the district, which many residents find stifling. His summertime sojourns to Bedminster create traffic snarls, bring unwanted media attention, and have caused headaches for owners of private aircraft and local businesses who find themselves grounded whenever the president comes to town.
“There are very strict rules that the Secret Service applies to local airports and aircraft anywhere near Bedminster, so if you own a private plane or your business depends on local aviation... it can be very, very disruptive,” Malinowski said. Locals have even pressured Lance to support a bill in Congress allowing local pilots to fly if they’ve passed a background check, to little avail.
Trump, for all his connections to the district, has not endorsed Lance explicitly (the only Lance he has ever tweeted about is Armstrong), perhaps understanding that his presence on the campaign trail would be more hindrance than help. But Malinowski himself has drawn a contrast between himself and Democratic Party leaders, and is more likely to name the late Sen. John McCain as a hero than President Barack Obama.
McCain, Malinowski said, “stands for something that people are yearning for right now. He and I obviously didn’t agree on everything... but when the basic lines of common decency, truth, respect for differences that define who we are as Americans were crossed, he fought like hell to defend them, even if it meant taking on people in his own party.”
“I can’t think of a single thing that Congressman Lance has fought like hell for in his ten years in office.”