Craig Heard has worked to help the Republican Party for the last 40 years, and he has no plans to stop now.
But what he is trying to figure out is the best way to do it.
Heard, who unsuccessfully challenged Rep. Leonard Lance, R-Hunterdon, in the 2016 GOP primary says it’s “50-50,” he’ll do it again. His unofficial deadline for making a decision is Feb. 1, about three weeks away. And if he takes the plunge, Heard says he’ll plan on a campaign costing “half a million dollars.”
Lance already has a primary challenger in the 7th District, albeit an offbeat one.
That would be Lindsay Brown of Clark, who calls herself a “certifiable millennial.” Her website stresses her support for improving public education, adhering to the Paris Climate agreement and notes that she took part in last January’s women’s march in Washington D.C. Considering that the march was a protest over the election of Donald Trump, this is an odd resume for someone looking for votes in a Republican primary.
Heard agrees, saying that if he gets in the race, Brown will be merely a distraction.
Heard, 71, lives in Roxbury, and owns an outdoor advertising or billboard company. He has served on the Roxbury Board of Education, but most of his political career has been spent raising money for Republicans on the national level, including Ronald Reagan. Both his home and office, a historic farmhouse that was once a stagecoach stop in the Schooleys Mountain section of Washington Township, are filled with pictures and other souvenirs signed by various GOP luminaries.
Heard first ran against Lance in 2016, an effort that went nowhere.
Businessman David Larsen, who had run against Lance before, was also in the race, drawing the bulk of anti-incumbent support.
The final tally was nearly 32,000 votes for Lance, 19,400 for Larsen and less than 8,000 for Heard.
Why would this year be different?
For one thing, Larsen is no longer running. Heard also thinks Lance would be vulnerable in the general election.
“My greatest concern is that it’s going to be a Scott Garrett situation,” Heard said in a recent conversation.
The reference was to Garrett’s loss in 2016 to Democrat Josh Gottheimer in the 5th District. But there are differences here. Garrett was long considered to be too far right for all but a small sliver of New Jersey voters.
Lance has certainly swung right to keep in step with the more conservative House majority, but he really is no Garrett.
Lance ended up winning the district in 2016 by 37,000 votes, a comfortable margin.
Still, politically handicappers in Washington now see both the Lance race and the one in the adjoining 11th District, where Rodney P. Frelinghuysen is the incumbent, as competitive.
Heard says he fears that Lance would be easy to attack in the general election because he has flip-flopped on many issues.
That very same point, in fact, is being made by most of the (at last count) six Democrats seeking the party’s nod to challenge Lance. Democrats say Lance has been acting as a moderate of late, but that he really isn’t one.
Heard seems to be making the same point from the other direction. To him, Lance’s votes against repealing the Affordable Care Act and Trump’s tax package show he is not a consistent supporter of the president. Heard would not have that problem. He said that helping the Republican Party means he wants to do what’s best for Donald Trump and his agenda. That may mean running against Lance, or that may mean Heard will be back in his customary role of raising money for Republican purposes.
Heard agrees that limiting the federal tax deduction for state and local taxes to $10,000, as the tax bill does, would negatively impact many district residents.
But he added that the $10,000 threshold was the product of negotiations. An earlier version of the bill would have totally eliminated the deduction. So, to Heard, this was a victory of sorts.
“We pushed the envelope,” he said of like-minded Republicans in Washington. “We got it to ten-thousand. Now, let’s move on.” He said it’s wrong for New Jersey Republicans to be obsessed over a tax bill that has been signed into law.
Heard says he would have voted “yes” on the tax bill.
The specter of White House involvement in any congressional race is interesting, more so in this case.
For one thing, the district includes Trump’s golf course in Somerset County. Also, Bill Stepien, the political director in the White House, is a Jersey native and is well familiar with the 7th District.
More tellingly, Heard confirms (without giving details) that he has met with administration officials in Washington.
It’s hard to see the president openly backing a challenge to Lance. But short of that, the White House may do nothing to discourage one.
That may not be much comfort to the incumbent.