Everyone wants a shot at Jeff Van Drew.
New Jersey Democrats, still seething at the freshman congressman’s decision to defect to the Republican Party and pledge his “undying support” to President Donald Trump, are turning their attention to the task of beating Van Drew. Several Democrats are positioning themselves to run against their former ally, in what is shaping up as one of the country’s most closely watched and bitterly contested House races in 2020.
“My base is fired up to kick his ass,” said Michael Suleiman, the Atlantic County Democratic Party chairman. “He’s going to have a fight on his hands.”
But winning back the second congressional seat won’t be easy.
Van Drew was a prized Democratic recruit to run for the South Jersey swing district vacated by longtime Republican Rep. Frank LoBiondo in 2018. Democrats knew the district was purple: Trump won it by five points in 2016, while President Barack Obama got 53% of the vote each time he ran. They would need a moderate, well-known candidate. In Van Drew, who supports gun rights and represented part of the district as a state lawmaker for years, Democrats found a candidate who captured the seat for the first time in decades.
But now that he’s bolted to the GOP, state political watchers are wondering whether any of the declared or prospective Democratic candidates is the right fit for what’s still a conservative-leaning district, which contains all of Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland, and Salem Counties, and parts of Burlington, Camden, Gloucester and Ocean Counties.
“Jeff Van Drew was the right candidate at the right time,” said William Pascrell III, a lobbyist who has advised top New Jersey Democrats including Gov. Phil Murphy and Sen. Robert Menendez. “He [had] a good organization, he was a known brand that was elected multiple times."
"We need a good candidate like a Mikie Sherrill,” Pascrell added, referring to the Democratic congresswoman who already represents a North Jersey district.
Meanwhile, establishment Democrats and progressive activists are already at odds with each other early in the campaign, echoing tensions playing out in the presidential race and other primary elections throughout the country.
Van Drew still might not survive a Republican primary. Aside from his opposition to impeaching Trump — the issue which ultimately drove him from the Democratic Party — he has mostly voted with Democrats in the House. Several candidates are running against him. Trump has publicly endorsed Van Drew, and an affiliated PAC spent $250,000 on TV and online ads for him. But just how much Trump will ultimately campaign for the longtime Democrat in a GOP primary is unclear.
“Donald Trump is not known for his loyalty,” said Julie Roginsky, a Democratic strategist. “He’s just gotten what he wants out of Jeff Van Drew."
Early signs point to Brigid Callahan Harrison as the Democratic front-runner. She’s a longtime resident of Longport who spent time as a journalist before becoming a political science professor at Montclair State University. Harrison has already locked down much of the support from establishment Democrats in the area. A day before Van Drew made his party switch official last week in a White House meeting with Trump, six of the eight county Democratic chairs, as well as state Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester), all backed Harrison.
That could help scare off some potential challengers early in the contest. Support from party leaders is crucial to getting a candidate “on the line” — a favorable ballot position that can significantly increase a candidate’s chance of winning a primary.
“It would be very hard for anybody to be successful without getting those county lines,” Roginsky said. “It doesn’t mean candidates can’t win ‘off the line,’ but you would have to have the name recognition and financing to break through.”
Noticeably absent from a joint letter supporting Harrison was Suleiman, the Atlantic County Democratic chairman, whose county represents 37% of the district’s registered voters and 41% of its registered Democrats.
“Atlantic County is a glaring omission,” Roginsky said. “That’s a game changer if somebody else wraps [that] up.”
Despite Harrison’s strong start, progressives are making sure their voices are heard and that a candidate like her — many associate Harrison with South Jersey’s Democratic machine — won’t just steamroll into the general election as the choice of party insiders.
“Brigid’s got the machine backing," said Sue Altman, director of New Jersey’s progressive Working Families Alliance. But “if [progressives] don’t feel like they’ve been consulted, that’ll spill over to the general. It would depress excitement, depress all those things that helped propel the blue wave.”
Many progressive activists are rallying around Atlantic County Freeholder Ashley Bennett, who announced her bid for Van Drew’s seat last Friday. Bennett got into politics in 2017, after incumbent Freeholder John Carman shared a Facebook post about the Women’s March that said: “Will the women’s protest be over in time for them to cook dinner?"
The Working Families Alliance itself is still vetting candidates before the group makes an endorsement.
Amy Kennedy, daughter-in-law of the late Sen. Ted Kennedy (D., Mass.) and daughter of former Atlantic County Freeholder Jerry Savell, has announced an exploratory committee and will decide on a run after the holidays. Her husband is former Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D., R.I.), who once chaired the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, House Democrats’ campaign arm.
People watching the race caution that anger at Van Drew and his opposition to impeachment aren’t enough for Democrats to win. The Democratic nominee will also have to address issues that matter to district voters, such as the environment and offshore oil drilling.
“Beating Trump is the floor, not the ceiling,” Suleiman said. “We’re pissed off at Jeff, we’re going to beat Jeff, but then what?"