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New Jersey's Self-Proclaimed Moderate Congressman Takes Heat From All Sides


Congress is on recess. Members are in their districts, and this is the time when typically they meet their constituents face to face. So let's listen in on one of those meetings.


On the spectrum from most conservative to most liberal, Republican Leonard Lance's New Jersey district rests squarely at the center. It is the political median in the 435-seat House. Voters chose him. They also narrowly went for Hillary Clinton.

CORNISH: NPR's congressional correspondent Susan Davis reports on the political squeeze on Lance, Congress' man in the middle.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: What's the political definition of a moderate? For Republicans like New Jersey's Leonard Lance, it means taking hits from all sides. Take a listen to this exchange with constituent Janet Katz at a town hall meeting last night.

JANET KATZ: It's ridiculous. Do your jobs. Work together.

LEONARD LANCE: I do - I agree with that.

KATZ: When people work together...

LANCE: I agree with that. I agree with that.

KATZ: If everybody doesn't get exactly what they want, then there's a win.

LANCE: I agree with that.

KATZ: Compromise.

LANCE: I agree with - I agree with that, and I hope the Democrats will come to the table.

KATZ: I hope the Republicans will come to the table.

DAVIS: Like most of the people who showed up at Lance's town hall, Katz wanted to talk about health care. She wants to keep the Affordable Care Act intact, and she opposes the Republican bill to repeal and replace it. She made that pretty clear.

KATZ: I want this repeal crap to stop.


DAVIS: Lance is already a no vote on his party's health care bill, which is what his constituents want. He's also facing criticism from conservatives who want the bill to go further and repeal the law entirely to start over.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Tell Leonard Lance don't fall for fake repeal. Vote no on Ryancare and get rid of Obamacare for good.

DAVIS: That's an ad from the Washington-based Club for Growth, which is targeting moderates like Lance in a recent wave of attack ads. And this is life in the political middle. After the 2016 elections, Lance's wealthy suburban New Jersey district became the new median seat in Congress. Not too conservative, not too liberal, just right of center - that's according to The Cook Political Report that ranks districts based on their partisan leanings every two years. Lance is one of just 23 House Republicans who represents a district Hillary Clinton won. That means fresh challenges to being a Republican moderate with Donald Trump in the White House. The president is really unpopular here with Democrats like Barbara Babcock, retired teacher at Lance's town hall.

BARBARA BABCOCK: The current administration is ruining the Republican brand. And I think that anybody who really cares about standard Republicanism, as it used to be, really needs to stand up to this administration, and I'd like to see my congressman do that.

DAVIS: Lance is happy to distance himself from the Republican pack. At just this town hall, he called on the president to release his tax returns, embrace the need to address man-made climate change and criticized the president's early round of executive orders on immigration. But for every chit he earns from some constituents for taking on his party, it can leave others feeling disappointed.

ROXANNE WALLACE: You know, I was hoping that once they had the Senate and the Congress and the White House, they would do a little bit more.

DAVIS: That's Roxanne Wallace, another one of Lance's constituents at the town hall. She thinks the president's doing a pretty good job. She wants Republicans to work with him and deliver. She's not impressed so far.

WALLACE: They seem to buckle all the time when somebody starts screaming or protesting or using their thumb up signs. They buckle.

DAVIS: Energized Democrats and frustrated Republicans are a political mix that will keep Lance's district at the very top of the list for competitive races in next year's midterms. That was on display at last night's town hall as the congressman faced repeated catcalls and taunts about losing next year. But the congressman didn't want to go there yet.

LANCE: I believe 2018 will take care of itself. I want 2017 to be a year of governance where we can come together and work in a bipartisan and a bicameral capacity.

DAVIS: That's a pretty moderate message. It's just not clear yet who's listening. Susan Davis, NPR News, Flanders, N.J. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Susan Davis is a congressional correspondent for NPR and a co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast. She has covered Congress, elections, and national politics since 2002 for publications including USA TODAY, The Wall Street Journal, National Journal and Roll Call. She appears regularly on television and radio outlets to discuss congressional and national politics, and she is a contributor on PBS's Washington Week with Robert Costa. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Philadelphia native.