Sparks flew in an debate between candidates in the state’s seventh congressional district, where Tom Malinowski and Rep. Leonard Lance are in a tight contest for a seat that could decide the balance of parties in the House of Representatives.
The candidates brawled over a wide range of issues, but exchanges over guns and Malinowski’s previous comments about what he said was the Republican party’s existential debate over the role of white nationalists in the party – comments that could cost the challenger political points if he finds himself elected in November – stood out as particularly tense.
“As we’re speaking here tonight, there are children telling their parents across this district about the live shooter drills that they encounter today,” Malinowski said. “This started with the Sandy Hook Massacre in Connecticut, when those children were killed in their elementary school. When that happened, those parents pleaded with you congressman, pleaded with the Congress to do something.”
“In 2012, you opposed universal background checks, you opposed a ban on assault rifles, you opposed every single sensible measure. What has changed? You’re afraid of losing an election.”
Lance said he supported background checks – policy that he once opposed, but he did not say what led him to change his position on the issue, and he defended himself by touting the endorsement of former Rep. Gabby Giffords’ gun group.
He did strongly reject the notion that his policy positions were motivated by Malinowski’s elections challenge.
“My views are based upon my views not based upon political considerations,” Lance said.
In the spin room following the debate, Malinowski called Lance’s movement on the issue a sincere conversion, though he made separate claims about Lance moderating out of political expediency during the debate.
Both candidates were clearly aiming to capture the district’s moderate voters, and both came with a plan to disrupt their opponent’s quest for those swing voters.
Lance’s disruption strategy fell back on a campaign attack line from last month.
“Mr. Malinowski accused the Republican party in Washington D.C. of debating whether or not it is a white nationalist party,” Lance said. “That’s one of the most appalling statements I’ve heard in public life. that is no way forward in bipartisanship. I would never accuse the Democratic party of any such action related in any way. We should treat each other in Congress as we should treat each other as Americans – civilly and respectfully.”
Malinowski said he was not referring to Lance or even the state’s Republican party with those statements.
Still, that stance could prove an issue for Malinowski in Washington, especially if he wants to reach across the aisle to work on policy, a point Lance didn’t hesitate to make by touting his membership in the Problem Solvers’ Caucus, a bipartisan group of congresspeople that aims to break Washington’s partisan gridlock.
Fellow New Jersey Rep. Josh Gottheimer is the caucus’s co-chair.
Despite the apparent missteps in the contest, which was hosted and televised statewide by NJTV, Monmouth pollster Patrick Murray said the two candidates avoided making any deadly mistakes. Nothing that happened Wednesday night, he said, would move the needle.
The candidates might have taken notice of that, as neither declared themselves the debate’s winner in the spin room.