New Jersey lawmaker looks to lead GOP down center path

Freshman Rep. Leonard Lance (R-N.J.) is in the middle of one of the biggest debates in the Republican Party — whether it should adhere to a purer ideology or take a big-tent approach to politics.

Lance is a fiscal conservative and social centrist who emphasizes his environmental record — the big-tent approach that pure conservatives love to hate.

But Lance is using his beliefs to advocate a position conservatives can support — getting more Republicans elected to Congress, particularly in the Northeast, which is traditionally a Democratic stronghold.
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 “I am very vigorous about this,” Lance said in an interview. “It is clear beyond dispute that there are not very many of us; it would be ridiculous for me to argue otherwise. But in my judgment there is going to be more of us and that’s the way the party should move forward. I have discussed this with the leadership on many occasions.”

Sen. Arlen Specter’s (D-Pa.) party switch has left Republicans with an even smaller cadre of Northeastern centrists. And Democrats’ gains in the region have led them to view Lance as vulnerable. They have already launched attacks hoping to put his district, which President Obama carried by one percentage point last year, into play next year.

And many see Lance’s success or failure as he heads toward reelection as an indicator of whether the GOP can re-emerge in the Northeast — or if it will continue its drift toward extinction.

Lance said he makes his case for a big-tent Republican Party, especially in the Northeast, whenever he sees House Minority Leader John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerBoehner says it's Democrats' turn for a Tea Party movement House Republicans find silver lining in minority Alaskan becomes longest serving Republican in House history MORE (R-Ohio) and House Minority Whip Eric CantorEric Ivan CantorHouse Republicans find silver lining in minority Top-level turnover sparks questions about Chamber Pelosi warns GOP: Next president could declare national emergency on guns MORE (R-Va.). He has also helped Rep. Mike Castle (R-Del.), the National Republican Congressional Committee’s Northeast regional chairman, by suggesting names of Republican candidates whom he believes would be successful.

“I have consistently indicated in the conference that in order to get back in the majority, we have to do better in the Northeast,” he said. “It is clear to me that leadership recognizes we have to have a big tent.”

Lance’s suggestions have been welcomed by the leadership, said Michael Steel, a spokesman for BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerBoehner says it's Democrats' turn for a Tea Party movement House Republicans find silver lining in minority Alaskan becomes longest serving Republican in House history MORE. “Leader Boehner has repeatedly said that Republicans must be able to compete in every part of the country,” Steel said. “Members from the Northeast, like Rep. Lance, understand that need particularly well, and he [Boehner] appreciates their input.”

New Jersey political observers, including some Democrats, think Lance is well-suited for the district and that he may be in a good position to be a leader in advocating for centrist Republicanism. Lance knows the area well, having served in the State Assembly for 17 years before moving to Congress.

One New Jersey Democratic insider acknowledged that, at this point, Lance would be hard to knock off. “It’s hard to attack Leonard Lance because for a long time no one did,” the insider said. “He’s always seen as a great guy, honest and brilliant.”

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National Democrats are doing their best to land some blows on Lance. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has launched a radio ad and robo-calls in the district for Lance’s vote against Obama’s $787 billion stimulus package. The DCCC has also released a slew of press releases criticizing Lance for “hypocrisy” because, after voting against the bill, he commended some shovel-ready projects receiving money in his district.

But some say those early Democratic attacks haven’t had much of an effect. “The attacks in Washington are not making significant inroads with Leonard at this point,” said Ben Dworkin, the director of the nonpartisan Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University. “National Democrats are hoping these attacks are planting a seed that will bloom later on, but right now, they are just in the ground.”

However, if 2010 proves as hospitable a cycle for Democrats as 2006 and 2008 were, Lance could be vulnerable, especially considering his paltry fundraising in the first quarter. Lance raised $173,000 in the quarter and finished $55,000 in debt — not a lot, considering his district lies in one of the most expensive media markets in the country.

“There is no doubt that if Leonard Lance has a straight-line GOP voting record he’s going to be ripe for a challenge in 2010,” said Rob Asaro-Angelo, the New Jersey Democratic Party’s executive director.

At this point, though, it looks like Republicans aren’t worried about Lance and, instead, are looking to find more candidates like him.

“He’s a great example of someone who withstood a Democrat wave because he fits his district and has his own brand within the community,” said Paul Lindsay, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. “That’s exactly the kind of candidate we need more of in the Northeast.”