U.S. Rep. Jeff Van Drew, who switched parties and pledged “undying support” to President Trump, was a prime target for local Democrats in South Jersey, who even found themselves a Kennedy to run as their candidate.
But the storied Kennedy political dynasty, which had taken root in Brigantine after former U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy married a school teacher from Absecon, appears to have run into a thicket of Atlantic City politics on the way to exacting revenge on Van Drew.
Tuesday night, it was Van Drew who was claimed to be victorious, and Wednesday, he was still maintaining a 9,500 vote lead, 51% to 48%.
Amy Kennedy, who married into the political dynasty from Massachusetts, was left contemplating whether the remaining uncounted votes would help her close the gap in New Jersey’s 2d Congressional District.
Wednesday, the focus turned to Cumberland County, as the reported vote totals remained stuck at 75 percent of precincts, according to the Associated Press, which has not declared a winner. The county reported preliminary results after midnight Wednesday that showed Kennedy with 11,513 votes and Van Drew with 6,756 votes. [Update: On Thursday, new totals showed Kennedy with 14,888 and Van Drew with 10,020].
County officials issued assurances Wednesday that they were busy counting their “large vote-by-mail turnout.” There were also a reported 4,500 provisional ballots cast on Election Day in the county.
In Atlantic County, Lynn Caterson, chair of the Board of Elections, said Thursday that 18,473 vote by mail ballots received on or since Election Day would be scanned and counted on Friday. There are an additional 9,383 provisional ballots that cannot be counted before next week, once all allowable vote by mail ballots have been received, she said.
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Kennedy, after showing muscle against the powerful Norcross Democratic Machine-backed candidate in the Democratic primary, was hurt in the general election after Atlantic County Democratic operative Craig Callaway switched his allegiance and began working with his old friend Van Drew.
Callaway’s work wrangling Van Drew votes, including by all accounts an exceptionally busy operation on the streets of Atlantic City on Election Day, left Kennedy with significantly smaller margins in the county than other Democratic candidates on the ballot.
Still, the Kennedy campaign was not conceding and said remaining votes could make up the difference.
Kennedy’s campaign manager Josh Roesch said late Tuesday he believed she could still make up the difference with outstanding votes in Atlantic and Cumberland counties. The campaign declined to comment further on Wednesday.
An eventual loss by Amy Kennedy would be the family’s second this year, after her cousin-in-law Joe Kennedy lost his Senate primary in Massachusetts.
Locally, Van Drew allies said the veteran politician’s experience and reputation in the district trumped whatever advantage Democrats thought they might have with a Kennedy, even one like Amy Kennedy, who has her own roots in South Jersey but who was still a political novice.
“A Kennedy couldn’t win an election in Massachusetts this year,” said Republican State Sen. Michael Testa of Vineland, in Cumberland County. “I find it mind-boggling to think that a Kennedy thought they could win in South Jersey against such a popular figure as Congressman Jeff Van Drew.”
Van Drew gave what amounted to a victory speech Tuesday night inside the Oar House tavern in Sea Isle City, while Kennedy said she would await the counting of all the ballots.
Reports out of Atlantic City painted a picture of a busier-than-expected Election Day, with a large number of people showing up to cast either provisional or vote-by-mail ballots at the polls.
Van Drew called it a “hard and brutal year” and said a lot of “money and power” was used to try to remove him from his seat. But he had a final power move of his own: renewing an alliance with Callaway, a controversial Democratic operative in Atlantic City.
Callaway was paid $110,000 and worked relentlessly, especially on Election Day, getting voters and ballots to the polls on Van Drew’s behalf. Kennedy defeated Van Drew in Atlantic County, but her margin was thousands fewer than other Democrats on the ballot in Atlantic County, including candidates for Sheriff, U.S. Senate and Atlantic City Mayor.
In the Atlantic County Sheriff’s race, for example, Democrat Eric Scheffler defeated Republican “Tokyo” Joe O’Donoghue by a margin of about 11,400 votes, unofficial returns, while Kennedy’s margin over Van Drew was about 4,700.
Callaway said Wednesday he had no regrets about supporting Van Drew, though he said he did not support Trump. He was still angry about the way the Kennedy family treated him, both as it courted his support in the primary and sought out his help in winning votes.
He said they viewed his involvement with their campaign during the primary as them doing him a favor by allowing him to associate with the Kennedy family, and that once they received his support in the primary, “They thought they owned it.”
“They wanted to view African Americans as butlers and maids,” said Callaway, who is Black and a former City Council president in Atlantic City who served jail time on a bribery charge stemming from an FBI sting operation. “I”m not being a butler to the Kennedys. My family is not inferior to any family."
Callaway said the controversial vote-by-mail operation he has employed to great success in prior elections was made easier by this year’s election that was nearly entirely vote-by-mail, and where every voter got a ballot automatically.
"By everything being vote by mail, it expanded my area. We started focusing primarily on people who had not returned their ballots. Then we upped our activity. On Election Day we were laser focused on narrowing it down to a lot of people who we know, have interacted with them, who we may have registered to vote.”
His army of paid messengers, who are limited by state law to three in total, had only to drop the ballots in a box rather than drive them out to the county elections board in Mays Landing as in past years.
He said he believed Van Drew was “an honorable man.”
“I see the history of him,” Callaway said. “He’s not loyal to a party or to an ideal. He’s loyal to the people. He works hard for constituents.”
In his speech Tuesday night, Van Drew thanked his loyal chief of staff Allison Murphy, one of the few staffers who did not leave him after he became a Republican. He did not mention the president, and, in fact, in recent weeks had sought to distance himself from the literal sentiments associated with his “undying support” pledge.
“The America that we do know is the America that we need to survive,” Van Drew said. “I want your children and your grandchildren and great grandchildren to know and to feel the greatness of this amazing nation.”