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Party-switcher Rep. Jeff Van Drew declared winner against Amy Kennedy in 2nd Congressional District

Days after the Election, Van Drew was declared the winner against Democrat Amy Kennedy in the sprawling South Jersey congressional district.

U.S. Rep. Jeff Van Drew addresses supporters in Sea Isle City Tuesday night. He appeared confident of victory but Democrat Amy Kennedy said she would await final counting of ballots.
U.S. Rep. Jeff Van Drew addresses supporters in Sea Isle City Tuesday night. He appeared confident of victory but Democrat Amy Kennedy said she would await final counting of ballots.Read moreAmy S. Rosenberg

U.S. Rep. Jeff Van Drew, who infuriated Democrats when he switched parties and declared “undying support” to President Donald Trump, was declared the winner Friday over Democrat Amy Kennedy in New Jersey’s 2nd Congressional District.

The projected victory ends Democratic visions of revenge against Van Drew, whose long history of winning elections in South Jersey ultimately served him well, even in his new party, and gave him the last Republican laugh against a candidate with a prized Democratic pedigree: the Kennedy name.

It also will leave the storied American political dynasty without a family member in elected federal office, after Joe Kennedy lost his bid for a Senate seat in Massachusetts. Amy Kennedy, a former public school teacher, is married to former Rep. Patrick Kennedy, the son of the late Sen. Edward “Ted” Kennedy.

Van Drew himself declared victory Tuesday night with a 10,000-vote margin, and his lead only increased since then, even as Kennedy was continuing to vow to fight to the last ballot.

Late Friday, Kennedy issued a statement saying she had called Van Drew to concede.

By Friday afternoon, Associated Press results showed 81% of precincts reporting and Van Drew’s lead widening to 15,867. Earlier Friday, with tens of thousands of ballots left to count and the margin at 15,494, AP projected Van Drew the winner.

An additional 16,419 ballots were counted Friday in Atlantic County, but it was Van Drew who picked up ground, not Kennedy. Her margin in that Democrat-rich county dropped to 2,993, from about 4,700. The current Atlantic County count is Kennedy 65,017 to Van Drew’s 62,024.

Two days after the election, Van Drew still had a 10,000-vote lead, according to the latest results from the Associated Press, which had him at 146,196 votes and Kennedy with 136,022 vote with 72 percent of precincts reporting. Van Drew gave a victory speech in Sea Isle City Tuesday night, but the race was still considered too close to call. Kennedy did not concede on election night. .

Cumberland County also still had tens of thousands of uncounted ballots, with a more precise figure unavailable. The latest returns released by the county late Thursday night showed Kennedy with 18,319 votes and Van Drew with 13,227 votes.

The 2nd District includes all of Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland and Salem Counties and parts of Gloucester, Burlington, Ocean and Camden Counties.

Van Drew, a freshman congressman, upended the South Jersey political scene when he refused to vote for Trump’s impeachment, then switched parties in December 2019 and pledged “undying support” to the president in the Oval Office.

Trump later held a rally in Wildwood, in Van Drew’s home Cape May County.

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In Kennedy, Democrats thought they had the ideal candidate to exact revenge on Van Drew: a local Atlantic County native who had married into the storied Kennedy political dynasty. The Kennedys live in Brigantine.

But even as a Republican, the always-conservative Van Drew managed to renew the ties in Atlantic City he’d built up as a Democrat and get the support of area Republicans, in a district that voted for Trump in 2016. He also enlisted the services of Craig Callaway, a controversial Atlantic City Democratic operative and vote-by-mail organizer who had supported Kennedy in the primary.

Callaway’s organization was paid $110,000 by Van Drew.

And while the Kennedy campaign showed surprising strength in the primary, defeating a candidate backed by the powerful Democratic State Senate President Steve Sweeney and the South Jersey political machine tied to power broker George Norcross, it did not appear to be able to marshal a winning strategy in the general.

In the 2nd district’s sometimes overlooked Gloucester County precincts, Sweeney’s home territory, Van Drew defeated Kennedy by 3,426 votes: 27,104 votes to 23,678. Local political sources said it was unclear just how much the Kennedy campaign reached out to Sweeney and others for help in the general election.

In Cape May County, Van Drew ran up a 12,000 vote lead over Kennedy, effectively neutralizing any lead she had in Atlantic and Cumberland.

Lynn Caterson, chair of the Atlantic County Board of Elections, said members of the New Jersey National Guard were busy processing the ballots, zipping and stripping, in preparation for the scanning company’s employees to be brought in Friday.

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An additional 9,383 provisional ballots were cast on Election Day at polling places, she said. But those ballots need to be investigated one by one, and cannot be counted before next Tuesday, to ensure that the voter has not also voted by mail.

"When you’re talking about another 27,000 ballots, almost every race in Atlantic County could be affected,” she said.

Atlantic County reported about 116,000 votes on Election Night, with Kennedy amassing only a 4,700-vote lead in the Democrat-rich county, which was less of a margin than Democrats were counting on. Turnout in the county may end up exceeding 70%, Caterson said.

Michael Suleiman, the chair of the Atlantic County Democrats, said even with Kennedy’s projected loss, he had no regrets about telling then-Democrat Van Drew back in December that a vote against impeachment would result in a loss of party support back home, which may have led Van Drew to bolt the party.

“Not only do I not regret it, I feel even more justified in light of what Trump has done since the election, including that speech that was teetering on the brink of autocracy,” Suleiman said Friday.

“Van Drew was desperate to keep his seat,” Suleiman said. “Everything he does screams of desperation.”