Wildwood in January is normally empty as the Nebraska plains. But this year, President Donald Trump is shaking the New Jersey beach town out of its winter slumber, and forcing it to get ready for prime time.
Trump’s Jan. 28 campaign rally at the Wildwoods Convention Center has riled up Garden State politicians. Democrats say no good can come of having Trump bring his divisive rhetoric to New Jersey, while Republicans are excited. Some are criticizing the president’s visit as the result of a “backroom deal” Trump made with Rep. Jeff Van Drew for defecting to the Republican Party.
But while lawmakers and activists express their fury, Wildwood business owners are preparing for a rare, lucrative burst of off-season spending. And local politicians are looking forward to the exposure the president’s visit will bring.
“This isn’t about whether you’re Republican or Democrat," said Wildwood Mayor Peter Byron, a Democrat who assumed office last week. “It isn’t even about the man. It’s about the position. ... Check your affiliation at the door, and let’s just all participate in this monumental [and] exciting time for Wildwood.”
Trump’s visit will be the first time a sitting president has campaigned in New Jersey’s 2nd Congressional District since President George H.W. Bush visited Vineland in October 1992. In the fall of 1984, President Ronald Reagan stopped in Hammonton during his reelection travels. And President Theodore Roosevelt made brief “whistle stop” remarks there.
Town officials have two weeks to prepare and are still waiting to meet with Trump campaign officials so they can figure out how much the rally will cost Wildwood taxpayers.
Almost all motels within walking distance sold out, some almost immediately. Chris Falcone, manger of the Days Inn & Suites directly across from the arena, said all 50 rooms were gone within 24 hours of the event’s being announced.
“We’re still getting calls,” he said.
Rooms at the Days Inn went for an average of $110 per night, about $20 higher than what they would normally be for this time of year, Falcone said. Most Airbnb rentals are ranging from $150 to $990 per night. Wildwood city schools will be closed on Jan. 28.
“You’re talking middle of January, which is usually the slowest time of the year,” Byron said. “It’s going to be a tremendous shot in the arm for the local economy.”
Van Drew will accompany Trump on Air Force One and at the rally, which he hopes will boost his reelection prospects in what is shaping up as one of the most closely watched and bitterly-contested House races in the country.
“The last thing President Trump should be focused on is coming to New Jersey to campaign for Jeff Van Drew," Gov. Phil Murphy said in a statement. “Doing so speaks to President Trump’s misplaced priorities and refusal to put what’s best for the country ahead of his own politics.”
Others, like Amy Kennedy, a Democratic candidate for Van Drew’s seat and member of the prominent Democratic family, have scheduled a “unity rally” for the morning of the Trump event. It will end with a volunteer food drive.
“Trump is paying off that backroom deal [with Van Drew] with one of his patented rallies full of divisiveness and hate, right here in our backyard," Kennedy said in an email to the other Democratic candidates in which she invited them to join the rally.
And 25 New Jersey progressive groups have joined forces to stage a protest on the Wildwood boardwalk outside the convention center.
Trump’s rally comes as the Democratic and Republican primary races in the district are heating up.
Van Drew had been a prized Democratic recruit in 2018 to run for the South Jersey swing district vacated by longtime Republican Rep. Frank LoBiondo.
The district — which stretches from the Philadelphia suburbs in Gloucester County south to Cape May, and from north of Atlantic City into Burlington County — is a battleground: Trump won it by five points in 2016, while President Barack Obama got 53% of the vote each time he ran.
In Van Drew, who has supported 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. Van Drew handily won the Democratic primary. He topped Republican Seth Grossman by eight percentage points in the general election.