As Democrats oversaw days of impeachment hearings, President Donald Trump repeatedly took to Twitter with his usual stream of praise for supporters, attacks on opponents, and frequent denunciations of “Radical Left” Democrats running a “witch hunt” against him — especially “Crazy” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
But amid the invective last week was something unusual: a kind word for a Democrat.
That Democrat was New Jersey Rep. Jeff Van Drew, who represents a conservative-leaning district outside Philadelphia, was one of only two members of his party to vote against the impeachment inquiry, and is quickly emerging as Trump’s favorite player on the other team.
“Congressman Van Drew (D-NJ) SLAMS Democrats for ‘fracturing the Nation’ with Impeachment probe,” Trump said in a Tuesday tweet that seemed to quote from Fox News, the president’s favorite cable news channel.
The next day, Trump quoted Van Drew directly:
“Congressman Van Drew (D-NJ): We’ve spent millions of Dollars, in my opinion, tons of money, tons of time, tons of hurt, fracturing the Nation apart.”
Van Drew seemed happy enough to accept Trump’s shout-outs: He appeared multiple times on Fox News last week to tout his opposition to the impeachment inquiry.
“This has nothing to do with whether you like Donald Trump, or don’t like him, or want to see him have a second term or win in an election,” Van Drew said in one Fox News appearance Monday. “This has to do with the institution of impeachment itself and not misusing it. People make the decisions in America, people vote. We have elections. We have less than a year to go ahead and do that.”
Republican strategists are closely eyeing Van Drew’s seat as one they might be able to flip in 2020. The district stretches from the Philadelphia suburbs of Gloucester County to Cape May, and north of Atlantic City into Burlington County. It’s one of two New Jersey congressional races rated as a “toss-up” by the nonpartisan handicapper Cook Political Report. Republicans held the seat for more than two decades before Van Drew won it in 2018.
Most political analysts see Van Drew’s opposition to impeachment as shrewd given that Trump won the district by 5 points in 2016. But Trump’s love for the incumbent is unlikely to aid Republican efforts to win the seat next year.
“It’s not helpful to have the president propping up the opposing party,” said one Republican strategist involved in the GOP campaign to retake the House, who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid Trump’s wrath.
Democrats have been building a case that Trump abused his power by holding up a coveted White House visit and military aid approved by Congress while pushing for Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden, his main political rival, and his son Hunter. Trump has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing, and Republicans in Congress have dismissed the impeachment inquiry as illegitimate, even as a growing number of witnesses have bolstered the allegations.
“Do we have pictures, tape recordings, any kind of written information in some way that locks us into a situation that’s treasonous or high crime?” Van Drew said during a “tele-town hall” Thursday. “At this point, we’re going to have an election in less than a year. My thought is that we should move forward and get some work done now.”
Van Drew’s constituents are divided on impeachment.
“I am a Republican, and on occasion voted Democratic,” George Del Rossi, a military veteran, said on the tele-town hall. “Seeing your stance on the latest Trump issue here, I see where you are coming from. ‘Wait till November,’ I appreciate that.”
Others seem incensed. “You were against the inquiry,” one caller said. “You’re against getting information on what happened with this man. I’m very disappointed in you.”
Younger voters and progressive voters in the district have echoed that sentiment, with some threatening to organize a primary challenge against Van Drew in 2020.
"I wouldn’t vote for anyone who likes Trump,” Gianna Malgieri, 20, said recently at a Starbucks in Mays Landing.
Van Drew has a tough task.
He has to win a primary, shoring up his moderate Democratic base without swinging so far right that he gives enough fuel to a competitive primary challenger. And if he passes that first test, he has to stay moderate enough to keep some Republican voters on his side without alienating Democrats.
“It’s going to be a tough uphill climb,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute. “You really can’t run on both sides.”
The most recent data show that 40% of voters in the district don’t identify themselves as belonging to a political party, compared to 31% who identify as Democrats and 28% who identify as Republicans. In state legislative races earlier this month, the only Democratic defeats happened in Van Drew’s congressional district.
Given the fractious district, the question will be: How much will Van Drew’s stance on impeachment matter to voters in the months ahead?
For many progressives, it matters. With the state’s June 2 primary still more than six months away, activists said they’re close to rallying around a primary challenger. They said they’ve learned from their mistake in 2018, when multiple candidates ran in the primary, diluting the liberal vote. Helen Duda, a progressive organizer in South Jersey, said activists want to pick one “young and energetic candidate that can put in the work.”
Republicans hope Van Drew’s appearances on Fox News and the friendly tweets from Trump will backfire by yielding a primary challenge that he’ll lose — and an eventual Democratic nominee they can beat.
“It may be less than ideal,” said Mike Testa, the cochair of Trump’s reelection campaign in New Jersey. “But I think he loses his base more than anything.... Each and every Democrat that’s in the primary race will point to those exact same tweets.”
Others say Van Drew is a formidable retail politician who knows his district and will go door-to-door touting his stance on impeachment as an example of independent pragmatism, which could appeal to both moderate Democrats and Republicans in the general election.
And everyone expects it to be a race to watch.