Multiple media outlets reported Saturday that New Jersey Rep. Jeff Van Drew would leave the Democratic Party and join the Republicans, a move that would flip his 51-46 Trump 2nd Congressional District back to Team Red about a year after he first won it.
Van Drew, who was facing the prospect of a serious primary challenge after he loudly opposed the drive to impeach Donald Trump, had not announced a switch as of Monday, but prominent Democrats are already treating his defection as a done deal. Gov. Phil Murphy called the South Jersey congressman’s decision “ridiculous and pathetic,” while DCCC chair Cheri Bustos retweeted a story about most of Van Drew’s staff resigning over the weekend and praised them for “quit[ting] their jobs to stand up for their Democratic values.”
A public declaration will likely come in the next few days, though. The New York Times writes that Van Drew has spoken to Trump officials about making his announcement at the White House, either right before or just after the House votes on articles of impeachment on Wednesday.
Several Democrats had talked about challenging Van Drew before the news of his planned switch broke, and both Montclair State University professor Brigid Callahan Harrison and West Cape May Commissioner John Francis announced on Monday that they’d run.
Harrison ran for office once before back in 1993m when she waged what the New Jersey Globe’s David Wildstein described as a “strong race for Atlantic County Freeholder” that she narrowly lost to a GOP incumbent. Wildstein also says that Harrison, who has written a number of widely used political science textbooks, “has deep roots in Atlantic County,” which is a large source of Democratic votes in the 2nd District.
Francis, meanwhile, serves a town of just 1,000 people, but he’s earned some attention outside the political world. Francis has spoken and written widely, including in a 2008 TED Talk, about his experience “traveling the globe by foot and said with a message of environmental respect and responsibility” and the 17 years he went without speaking. (Francis broke his voluntarily vow of silence in 1990 one day after Earth Day.)
But with Van Drew headed toward the other side of the aisle, several other Democrats are now eyeing this seat as well. Mental health advocate Amy Kennedy, the wife of former Rhode Island Rep. Patrick Kennedy, said Monday that she was forming an exploratory committee, while Wildstein writes that Atlantic County Freeholder Ashley Bennett is also “likely” to get in. Cumberland County Freeholder Jack Surrency was also reportedly considering running against Van Drew last month. New Jersey’s filing deadline isn’t until late March, so it may take a while for the contest to take shape.
Van Drew reportedly decided to switch parties after seeing poll numbers showing him in dire shape with Democratic primary voters after opposing impeachment, but he’s still likely to face serious opposition in the June GOP primary. Wealthy businessman David Richter has spent months challenging the incumbent, and he said over the weekend that he wasn’t going anywhere. Richter, who has already self-funded $300,000, said this week, “If I have to put $1 million of my own money into this race, to win, I’m prepared to do it.”
However, Van Drew may have a powerful ally in next year’s primary. Richter says local party leaders told him they expect Trump to endorse Van Drew, and Trump himself reportedly encouraged Van Drew to defect after a “lengthy” in-person meeting on Friday. After reports broke, Trump heaped praise on the congressman on Twitter, though he has not yet given him his formal backing.
By contrast, local GOP leaders in the eight-county 2nd District, who still play an important role in primaries, aren’t clamoring to support Van Drew, though they didn’t rule out the idea. Atlantic County GOP chair Keith Davis responded to the news by telling Politico, “We have a process, and we’ll see how it goes.” However, Davis admitted in a separate interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer, “We are the party that supports President Trump. ... If the president were to [endorse], it would certainly give Congressman Van Drew a benefit in the primary next year.”
Gloucester County GOP Jacci Vigilante seemed a bit more skeptical of Van Drew than Davis, saying, “He will have to prove he is with us on more than just the issue of impeachment,” adding that a “100% rating from Planned Parenthood and voting with Nancy Pelosi over 90% of the time is a lot to overcome.” She continued, “My point is Mr. Van Drew has some obstacles in front of him if he wants to be a Republican. We’ll accept him, but I am curious to see how he fixes these and other issues the rank-and-file are going to have with him.”
Van Drew spent 17 years in the state legislature as a Democrat, albeit a conservative one, before he was elected to Congress last year, but he may still have a lot to learn about politics as he prepares to run for office as a Republican for the first time. Two sources tell the Inquirer that after the congressman tried to convince DCCC staffers who were assigned to help him to stay with him after he became a Republican. To the surprise of probably no one but perhaps Van Drew, those Democratic staffers had absolutely no interest in helping the turncoat incumbent.
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