Vulnerable NJ Republican navigates messy Trump era politics

New Jersey Republican Congressman Leonard Lance (EDUARDO MUNOZ ALVAREZ/AFP/Getty Images)

WESTFIELD, N.J. — This is not President Donald Trump’s dinner party.

Republican Rep. Leonard Lance, standing in the middle of Ferraro’s dimly lit restaurant dining room, says it’s not necessary to build a wall along the entire U.S. border with Mexico. He raises concerns about the White House’s promised tax overhaul. And he condemns the brash personalities that have come to define the GOP in the age of Trump.

“His personality and mine are vastly different. I’m comfortable with my personality,” Lance says as 19 men gathered for a private meeting of the Republican National Lawyers Association pick through their salads.

In Washington, Lance is often among the GOP’s forgotten. The five-term congressman doesn’t garner the attention or influence of some of his Republican colleagues. Even at the supermarket across the street from his local office, many people don’t know his name.

But this gray-haired Republican in deep-blue New Jersey has become a crucial moderate vote in the fight to enact Trump’s agenda. And Lance’s ability to navigate the confused politics of the Trump era will help decide the House majority next year.

Few Republican congressmen faced voters in town halls during this past week’s recess, even as Congress pursues dramatic changes to the nation’s laws on immigration, health care and taxes. Even Lance, who has held five such town halls so far this year, avoided the larger unscripted venues where angry constituents have lashed out against Trump’s agenda in recent months.

They are still angry — at everyone in Washington, it seems.

In Michigan, die-hard Trump supporter Joe Guajardo questioned Republican Rep. Justin Amash after a recent town hall in Battle Creek.

“I’m wondering how he’s helping our president get things done,” Guajardo said. He added, “I don’t think President Trump’s getting a fair shake. And I don’t really know what Congress is doing to help him.”

In California, young immigrant students shouted down House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi for working too closely with Trump on immigration. They chanted for half an hour until Pelosi and some Democratic colleagues gave up and walked out of a news conference last Monday.

“We don’t want them making any deals with Trump,” said one of the protesters, Laith Ocean, a 20-year-old transgender student originally from Nicaragua.

At the supermarket across from Lance’s suburban New Jersey office, 47-year-old stay-at-home mom Suzanne McMahon warned that Lance would pay for Trump’s actions, even if the congressman doesn’t wholeheartedly embrace the president’s agenda.

“Even if he hasn’t been a bad guy, I want somebody to lose. He’s a Republican,” Democrat McMahon said of Lance.

The politics of the Trump era are particularly troubling for Republicans such as Lance, who is among two dozen GOP lawmakers nationwide serving in congressional districts that Democrat Hillary Clinton won in last year’s presidential race.

In most cases, they are considered the most vulnerable incumbents going into the 2018 elections, when Democrats need to pick up 24 seats to capture the House majority. Already, several Democrats are aggressively raising money to take on Lance. With Trump’s popularity near historic lows, Lance has little choice but to distance himself from his own party’s leader as he fights to enact conservative policies that sometimes align with Trump’s agenda.

It’s a tricky balance at best.

“I will support him where I agree with him and I will not support him where I disagree with him,” Lance told The Associated Press in an interview inside his Westfield office, where the only photograph on the wall features Lance alongside former presidential nominee Mitt Romney, who once personified the “Never-Trump” movement.

Lance, 65, scans a piece of paper on his desk as he tries to highlight areas of agreement with Trump: Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch’s appointment, the president’s second travel ban, fewer government regulations and hurricane aid.

He doesn’t need a cheat sheet to list the differences.

Lance opposes Trump’s plan for a wall across the entire U.S.-Mexico border, Trump’s ban on transgender soldiers serving in the military and the president’s initial response to a deadly white supremacist protest in Virginia. Lance already voted against the Trump-backed House health care overhaul. And on taxes, the congressman raises serious concerns about any plan that would eliminate the ability to deduct state and local taxes.

One of Lance’s closest friends on Capitol Hill, Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pa., describes Lance as a “growing voice” for the Republican Party.

“Leonard won’t be afraid to check the president if he’s moving in a direction that’s not in the best interests of New Jersey or the country,” Dent said. He added, “There are parts of the country where it’s probably not in everyone’s interests to stand shoulder to shoulder with the president on everything.”