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Andy Kim narrowly flipped a Trump district. It could be just as close this year.

Jeff Van Drew voted against impeaching Trump and ultimately defected to the GOP. Andy Kim took a different approach.

New Jersey Democratic Rep. Andy Kim.
New Jersey Democratic Rep. Andy Kim.Read moreTYGER WILLIAMS / Staff Photographer

WASHINGTON — A few blocks from the Capitol, Andy Kim settled into a small, quiet campaign office, minutes after casting his vote last week to formally send articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump to the Senate. It was a place for the New Jersey Democratic congressman to reflect.

“I did what I thought was right," said Kim, who also voted in favor of impeaching Trump in December. “This commander-in-chief position is one that I hold so sacred. The trust and the faith the American people put into [it] can’t be shaken.”

He said his decision-making approach was methodical and immune to politics. But with impeachment, the politics are impossible to ignore.

Kim, a former national security aide on Iraq issues under President Barack Obama, represents a South Jersey district that Trump won by six points in 2016. In 2018, Kim flipped the seat, beating Republican incumbent Tom MacArthur by fewer than 4,000 votes.

The only other New Jersey congressman who faced similar circumstances as Democrats’ push to impeach Trump heated up was Rep. Jeff Van Drew, who beat a longtime Republican in a district Trump won by five points. Van Drew voted against impeachment and ultimately defected to the GOP.

Kim took a different approach. And his opponents are using it to try to paint him as a “left-wing radical.”

“Andy Kim pretends to be a moderate,” said Kate Gibbs, the early Republican front-runner angling for Kim’s job. “This is not what people voted for. They feel they got a bait and switch."

Republicans are relishing the chance to unseat Kim, which they see as crucial to taking back the House in 2020.

“If Republicans win three seats in New Jersey, it’s going to be a Republican House,” former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie recently said on ABC News. “I think impeachment is a large part of it.”

And with the political dynamics of Kim’s district changing in recent years, the race to unseat him could be one of the closest and most hard-fought in the country.

“Nobody who wins is going to win big,” said Ben Dworkin, director of public policy at Rowan University. “This is an expensive district [and] 2020 is about the president. Tight races come down to the ground game.”

New Jersey’s Third Congressional District spans Burlington and Ocean Counties. Burlington County, which provided close to 60% of the district’s voters in 2018, has skewed liberal of late, while Ocean remains solidly conservative. Forty percent of voters in the district are registered without a party affiliation.

Political watchers say Kim’s success in 2018 was driven by a strong grassroots network, the anti-Trump wave that gave Democrats the House, and moderate Republicans upset with MacArthur’s proposed amendment to the Affordable Care Act. That measure, which failed, would have made it harder and costlier for people with preexisting conditions to get health-care insurance.

Since taking office, Kim has taken an approach similar to that of other Democrats in swing districts. He’s held 15 town hall meetings focusing on such issues as health care. He’s now taking to the campaign trail touting plans to lower prescription drug prices and reduce corporate influence in elections. If impeachment comes up, Kim said, he’s willing to discuss it. But he hopes for a deeper debate on other issues.

“Our politics now has gotten so nearsighted,” Kim said. “We’re operating one day at a time, one tweet at a time. We’re losing sight of the strategy and the vision that should be guiding our actions.”

But some Kim supporters are nervous.

“It might be harder for Andy Kim to get reelected this year,” said Jessica Dunlap, a progressive activist who helped knock on doors for the Kim campaign in 2018. “Tom MacArthur posed a pretty big threat with the [Obamacare] repeal. I know that was a big motivator for people. The Republicans who are undecided, who voted for Andy Kim against Tom MacArthur, aren’t voting against [MacArthur] this year."

Gibbs, a former Burlington County freeholder and labor union executive who lost reelection in 2018, is banking on a strong performance on her home turf.

“You have kind of a tale of two districts,” Gibbs said. “In order to win, you have to do well in Burlington. I can perform well enough in Burlington."

Gibbs won 46% of the vote in Burlington County when she ran for freeholder in 2015. MacArthur won 40% of the county’s vote against Kim in 2018, a year with higher turnout. Gibbs lost her freeholder seat that year.

Kim is raising money at a fast clip. In the fourth quarter of 2019, he brought in $900,000. He had $2.2 million in campaign cash going into 2020 with no primary challenger in sight. Ninety percent of his individual contributions were $100 or less.

He said that “2018 wasn’t a fluke. A lot of folks thought we wouldn’t be able to demonstrate our [continued] strength in fund-raising. What we prove is that people are excited about what I’m trying to do here.”

That money could prove crucial, because the district spans the pricey New York and Philadelphia media markets. In 2018, it had the most expensive congressional race in New Jersey, with the campaigns combining to spend more than $11 million.

Gibbs, whose signature achievement as freeholder was launching a $20 million grant program for school security upgrades, wants to focus on such issues as transportation funding and workforce development. She supports protections for people with preexisting conditions but acknowledged she’s still shaping her views on health-care policy.

“I’m not going to lie, health care isn’t a policy issue I’m an expert on,” Gibbs said. "We can come up with a way to make more affordable health care, but Medicare for All is not an option I would support, ever.”

Gibbs, who has the endorsement of the Burlington County GOP, is running against John Novak, mayor of Barnegat Township, and former Hainesport Mayor Anthony Porto in the Republican primary. She has raised almost $143,000 since announcing her candidacy in November, and has $135,000 in her war chest.

And while the 2020 race is still shaping up, Kim hopes voters will see he’s not another career politician.

“I would never want to do this job if it’s just about attaining power,” Kim said. “It’s really a question about what you do with that power.”