Freshman Democratic Rep. Jeff Van Drew (NJ-02) set off a political earthquake over the weekend when he informed his staff that he plans to become a Republican after meeting with President Trump and losing support from local South Jersey party leaders over his anti-impeachment stance. Six of his top aides have since resigned and the DCCC has pledged to defeat him in 2020, but it won't be easy.
The entire situation proves just how little wiggle room there is on impeachment: Van Drew had been politically adrift since being one of just two Democrats to cast a vote against formalizing rules for the inquiry in October (the other was Rep. Collin Peterson (MN-07). Afterwards, Atlantic County Democratic Chair Michael Suleiman and others refused to sign a pledge backing Van Drew in a primary.
In machine-run New Jersey, that matters: county party bosses have the power to give candidates favorable ballot placements. But Van Drew, a Blue Dog former state senator who once had an "A" rating from the NRA, had clearly tanked among his Democratic voters too: TargetSmart poll commissioned by his campaign December 7-10 found 54 percent of 2nd CD Democrats preferred another candidate.
Then, there was the electoral evidence: in November, Trump state campaign chair Mike Testa unseated Van Drew's successor and ally in the legislature, Democratic state Sen. Bob Andrzejczak, by six points despite Andrzejczak telling voters he is open to voting for Trump in 2020 and campaigning as a member of the "Van Drew Team." Andrzejczak's stance may have cost him more allies than won him new friends.
It's a jarring turnabout less than a year after Van Drew ascended to Congress, especially considering the DCCC had wooed him to run for over a decade and had hailed flipping the seat as a huge victory after moderate GOP Rep. Frank LoBiondo retired in 2018.
In truth, this was an atypical 2018 "flip." Van Drew, a dentist and former local mayor, had a uniquely popular brand in traditionally GOP Cape May County, and intimidated most top-tier Republicans from running. Unlike LoBiondo, who had strong labor ties, gadfly GOP nominee Seth Grossman was deserted by the NRCC over comments criticizing diversity and Van Drew won 53 percent to 45 percent.
Van Drew's 2018 triumph — which was actually narrower than expected given he outspent Grossman $1.9 million to $299,000 — wasn't a sign blue-collar far South Jersey is moving towards Democrats. Trump carried the 2nd CD 51 percent to 46 percent, his biggest improvement over Mitt Romney anywhere in the state. And in 2018, Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez lost the district 54 percent to 43 percent.
Now, the questions for 2020 are 1) to what extent Trump follows through on giving cover to Van Drew in next June's GOP primary and 2) whether Democrats are able to find a candidate capable of exacting revenge next fall.
Before Van Drew switched, the early frontrunner on the GOP side was businessman David Richter, former CEO of Hill International construction management, who had $390,000 on hand at the end of September including a $300,000 self-loan. Richter had worked on major casino projects in Atlantic City and owns a beach property in the 2nd CD, but lived full-time in Princeton up until earlier this year.
However, on Sunday, Trump appeared to give Van Drew his personal blessing when he tweeted "Thank you for your honesty Jeff. All of the Democrats know you are right, but unlike you, they don't have the 'guts' to say so!" If Trump were to personally instruct local GOP officials to embrace Van Drew, it's hard to imagine them or GOP voters rebuffing the president, but it's too soon to say for sure.
Richter had yet to consolidate universal support from local GOP leaders and earlier this year, Van Drew previewed his line of attack against Richter by calling him a "hoity-toity guy from Princeton" in an InsiderNJ.com interview outside a Shop Rite. But according to FiveThirtyEight, Van Drew has voted with Trump just seven percent of the time, and over the weekend, Richter called Van Drew an "absolute weasel."
Democrats in both DC and the district now view Van Drew as a feckless traitor and vow to do all they can to defeat him — including Tom Bonier, the TargetSmart CEO who conducted Van Drew's poll just a week ago. But the reality is that it will be next to impossible for Democrats to find a candidate who can replicate Van Drew's regional appeal (particularly in Cape May County) and ability to culturally connect here.
Far South Jersey voters often feel forgotten by the state's power centers to the north and are suspicious of carpetbaggers. Yet two of the top Democrats mentioned so far either live or have extensive ties outside the 2nd CD.
Montclair State University law professor Brigid Harrison had vocally criticized Van Drew's impeachment stance and was getting ready to primary him from the left, but Montclair State is 130 miles north of her residence in Longport. Bonier and others have floated Assembly Majority Leader Lou Greenwald, but the ambitious legislator lives in Voorhees, well outside the 2nd CD in Camden County.
Another potential Democrat is psychiatric emergency screener and Atlantic County Freeholder Ashley Bennett, who defeated a GOP incumbent in 2017. But it's not yet clear she has the desire or infrastructure to run a congressional race.
In Democrats' favor, it shouldn't be hard for their nominee to raise national money against Van Drew, considering the outrage at his desertion. But fundamentally, this is a classic blue-collar, Obama-Trump district that the deeply-rooted Van Drew only won by single digits against an atrocious GOP nominee in a great Democratic year. Van Drew would begin as the favorite if he were to win the GOP nomination.
As LoBiondo tweeted on Saturday, "New Jersey politics...never boring [facepalm emoji]." For now, the 2nd CD moves from Toss Up to the Lean Republican column, and that might even be generous to Democrats.