Rep. Jeff Van Drew is one of only two democrats in the country to vote against the impeachment inquiry.
Rep. Jeff Van Drew dispensed with any subtlety last December when he sat next to President Donald Trump in the White House as a newly converted Republican.
“You have my undying support — always,” he told Trump, extending his hand to shake the president’s.
That moment and Van Drew’s defection from the Democratic Party thrust a sleepy swing district in South Jersey into the national spotlight on the eve of Trump’s impeachment.
As Trump Republicans cheered, Van Drew was a refugee from Democratic extremism and a sign of broader, bipartisan misgivings about the impeachment crusade. It was a move, he argued, that was in step with his voters in New Jersey’s 2nd Congressional District.
“I believe that this is just a better fit for me,” he told Trump. “This is who I am.”
President Donald Trump on Thursday meets with Rep. Jeff Van Drew, who switched his party affiliation to the GOP. (Photo: Evan Vucci/AP Photo)
Amy Kennedy emerges
Ten months later, impeachment is a forgotten footnote, eclipsed by the stubborn pandemic and a cratering economy. Still, insurgent Democrat Amy Kennedy, the former schoolteacher from Brigantine, has made Van Drew’s party-switching the cornerstone of her campaign against him.
In her telling, district residents paid a heavy price for his opportunism. He has enabled a president whose dismissive and reckless handling of the pandemic has harmed businesses and left the economy in tatters.
“Van Drew stopped working for South Jersey and started working for himself,” one digital ad says of his jump to Team Trump.
Yet Kennedy’s frequent invoking of Van Drew’s White House star turn is far more subtle than the loud, tromping music of one her digital attacks seems to suggest.
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The strategy puts more emphasis on Van Drew’s switch to Trump, rather than on Trump himself. It doesn’t take Trump to task for his bungled management of the pandemic, his mockery of mitigation strategies like mask-wearing or his embrace of quack remedies like ingesting doses of bleach. It’s a strategy that implies that Van Drew is a Trump enabler without directly saying so.
“I think that is what really struck me, that got me into the race,” Kennedy said in an interview last week. She is married to Patrick Kennedy, a former Rhode Island congressman and son of the late U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts.
“And it was just so off-putting to me as a voter and I think to many others, who felt like it was a strategy that put himself first,” she said. “That, I think, is most troubling — and it is what we are seeing in the highest level now, this ‘me first’ attitude.”
Van Drew dismissed the criticism and described his switch as part of a long, inevitable political evolution. A former dentist from Dennis Township, in Cape May County, Van Drew climbed the ranks from town council, freeholder board and the Legislature as a pragmatic, non-ideological centrist known for his obsessive attention to constituent relations.
“I’ve never been a raging liberal,” he said. “I have never been a progressive.”
Not long after entering Congress in 2019, Van Drew was facing pressure to join the House Democrats’ push to impeach Trump, a move that he felt voters in his district did not support. He argued — to no avail — that it was a time-wasting political show and that voters would have the 2020 election to decide Trump’s fate.
The tipping point, he said, came when he was told by party leaders in Washington and New Jersey that party support would not be there for his own reelection if he didn’t back impeachment.
“If you don’t obey, your life is going to be hell; it’s doubtful that you are going to get to run; this is not going to be pleasant,” he quoted, without naming those who pressured him.
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Trump approached Van Drew in December after he voted against the House resolution to launch the impeachment inquiry. Three days later, he was in the White House with the president. Trump repaid the favor by appearing with Van Drew in a packed rally in Wildwood, and the congressman was selected to give a prime-time speech at the Republican National Convention in August.
He says he could have simply voted for impeachment and gotten reelected as a Democrat.
But some observers say Van Drew, with his finely attuned political antennae, sensed Trump’s growing popularity as early as election night in 2018, when, as a Democrat, he defeated Seth Grossman, an unabashed pro-Trump gadfly with a penchant for making outlandish statements and who ran without the backing of the state and national GOP.
Still, Grossman proved to be surprisingly competitive, — even in precincts that Van Drew routinely carried in past runs for the state Legislature, including a few in his hometown of Dennis.
There were other signs that the moderate-to-conservative cross-over voters who sustained him over the years were now drifting to the Trump-led Republican Party. In 2019, three conservative Republicans defeated three “Van Drew” Democrats in the South Jersey legislative district that he once represented.
Meanwhile, the increasingly restive and liberal wing of the Democratic Party showed little patience for Van Drew’s moderate brand. Switching sides may have been the only way to survive.
Democrats have registration advantage
Protesters express their disappointment with U.S. Rep. Jeff Van Drew during a Trump impeachment rally outside Van Drew’s office in Mays Landing.
Vineland Daily Journal
In recent years, the 2nd District, which encompasses all of Cape May, Atlantic, Cumberland and Salem counties and parts of Burlington, Ocean, Gloucester and Camden counties, has begun to swing with volatility.
It’s made up of rural, pro-Trump farmers, small-business owners and commercial fishermen but is eclipsed by the larger Democratic constituencies in Vineland and Atlantic City. It is also home to thousands of current, retired and unemployed casino workers who once worked at now-shuttered Trump properties.
Democrats now hold a 19,344 edge in voter registration over Republicans, an advantage that has grown by over 5,000 voters since the 2016 election.
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Despite that Democratic advantage, a Monmouth University poll last week found Trump trailing former Vice President Joe Biden, the Democratic nominee, by only a narrow three to five points in three separate turnout models used. That places Trump near or within the poll’s margin of error.
The poll also shows Kennedy leading Van Drew 49% to 45% among registered voters, with only 5% undecided. The Cook Political Report, a Washington, D.C.-based handicapper of congressional races, has classified the Van Drew-Kennedy race as a tossup. The political forecasting site FiveThirtyEight.com gives Van Drew a slight edge in holding his seat as a Republican
The Monmouth poll also found that the party switch is a potent issue for Kennedy and a factor in her narrow lead. It found that 47% were bothered by the switch from a Democrat to Republican, compared with 51% who are not.
“The thing about swing voters in that district is that they don’t like politics, distrust government, and their assumptions that politicians’ only motivation is to protect their own future,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth Poll. “Jeff Van Drew carved out a reputation as a conservative, independent-minded Democrat, not beholden to party leaders. His party switch ironically paints him as someone who puts his finger in the wind.”
But his supporters say his decision to buck the pressure from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s House Democrats on impeachment was in tune with district voters who value independence and the courage to assert it.
“There are the blind Democratic sheep who are going to vote Column B,” said Greg Sykora, chairman of the Somers Point Municipal Republican Club. “That’s not who Jeff Van Drew is. He proved it by saying, ‘I’m going to vote for what’s right and not what I’m told’ to do.”
Yet others are angered and betrayed, including Democrats who supported him with money and votes in the past.
Peggy Capone, a Mays Landing businesswoman, hosted a small fundraiser for Van Drew in 2018 at a local restaurant, eager to elevate a local congressman who would join a House Democratic majority that would act as a check on Trump’s excesses. Instead, he ended up enabling Trump.
“It’s all about him. It’s not about the policies, its not about the community. It’s about Jeff. And that is what is so disgraceful about it,” Capone said.
Charlie Stile is a veteran political columnist. For unlimited access to his unique insights into New Jersey’s political power structure and his powerful watchdog work, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.
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