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Jeff Van Drew, N.J. pro-gun Democrat, challenged on NRA contributions, setting up primary battle for midterm congressional seat with female first-time candidate

Tanzie Youngblood, a progressive Democrat who was featured on the cover of Time Magazine's "Avengers" cover, is trying to head off conservative Sen. Jeff Van Drew and the Democratic power apparatus.

Amy Rosenberg

NORTHFIELD, N.J. – With moderate Republican U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo retiring after 24 years, New Jersey's sprawling Second Congressional District is viewed as a likely district to flip from Republican to Democrat in the 2018 midterm elections.

But the politics of the South Jersey district that encompasses Shore towns from Long Beach Island to Cape May, the cities of  Vineland and Atlantic City, and rural expanses of Salem and Cumberland Counties may make for some bumpy surfing along an anticipated national blue wave.

"You lied," Emily McGrath, 17, a senior at Egg Harbor Township High School, told pro-gun Democratic candidate state Sen. Jeff Van Drew after a forum Wednesday night at a packed American Legion hall in Northfield, referring to evidence she'd called up on her phone that he took a $1,000 donation from the NRA in 2008.

"I don't have any faith that you will ever vote for universal checks," added Donna Challender, of Tuckerton, even after Van Drew had said he would support that.  "Because you're 100 percent NRA."

Local and national establishment Democrats are putting their faith in Van Drew, 64, a conservative Democrat with a top rating from the NRA, a political insider and local dentist who was endorsed by New Jersey power broker George Norcross even before he announced his candidacy. On Tuesday, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee named him one of the "Red to Blue" candidates, ensuring fund-raising and organizing support.

Van Drew is facing three left-leaning candidates in the June 5 primary, most notably first-time candidate Tanzie Youngblood, 62, a widowed retired schoolteacher with a son in the U.S. Navy, who was featured on Time Magazine's cover earlier this year as one of the nation's female "Avengers."

Van Drew's candidacy – and the cascade of establishment support he has received – has inflamed local progressive groups, many of which organized after the election of President Trump.

They wonder why their district should flip to someone whose views they see as not that different from the Republican he would replace and cite his record on guns, LGBT rights, minimum wage increases and immigration rights. In 2010, Van Drew sponsored a bill to loosen New Jersey's restrictive rules on carrying handguns and has voted against reducing the maximum capacity of ammunition magazines. More recently, he sponsored a bill to ban bump stocks.

"In some ways, he's more conservative than LoBiondo," said Jeremiah Schenerman, a 26-year-old hotel worker from Cape May County who is on the Democratic committee in the Republican-leaning county and calls Van Drew a "transactional politician."

Some people reported being blocked by Van Drew after posting questions about the NRA on his Facebook page, while others received private responses assuring them Van Drew supports expanded background checks and asserting,  "I have never received any kind of contributions from the NRA and do not plan to begin."

State election records show the $1,000 donation in 2008 cited by McGrath. In addition, records show that Van Drew received $1,000 on the same day from a lesser-known gun lobby, the Newtown Connecticut-based National Shooting Sports Foundation Inc., plus two other  NSSF donations: $500 on Nov. 9, 2007, and $1,200 on July 24, 2008.

Thursday afternoon, Allison Murphy, Van Drew's chief of staff, replied via Facebook message: "He stopped taking donations from them years ago and refused donations in the past several campaign cycles and will continue to refuse them."

"All donations for the past almost 8 years have been returned which is much different than most candidates," she added.

At the Wednesday night forum, Van Drew defended his Democratic bona fides.

"People ask me are you a Democrat, are you a good enough Democrat?" he said, citing votes for stem cell research, women's health, a millionaire's tax, paid family leave, and medical marijuana. He said he was pro-choice and respected settled law on gay marriage, though initially opposed.

When asked if Van Drew's views on gun legislation were considered by the DCCC,  spokesman Evan Lukaske said:  "The strong candidacy he's built is what was taken into consideration." (Federal election records show Van Drew has raised $80,391 to Youngblood's $30,540. She has also lent her campaign $23,000.)

The DCCC has identified 24 Democrats for support, including Andy Kim of Marlton, trying to unseat Republican Tom MacArthur of South Jersey's Third Congressional District. That is the number needed to flip the House to Democratic control.

Atlantic County Democratic Party Chair Mike Suleiman, one of eight county chairs supporting Van Drew, said the party was not applying a litmus test, and that Van Drew has the clearest path to election.

"Either we want to win that seat or we don't," said Suleiman. "The reason why strong candidates are not getting into the race on the Republican side is because Jeff is in it.  We have a real plan to win this thing and we have to go with the strongest candidate possible."

(On the Republican side, Hirsh Singh, James Toto, Brian Fitzherber and Mark McGovern have filed to run.)

But Youngblood, whose son is deployed to the Persian Gulf with  the U.S. Navy, and the two other Democratic candidates, Camden schoolteacher Sean Thom, who has the support of a Bernie Sanders political group, and Will Cunningham, a former staffer for U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, bristled at all the establishment support that has rushed to back Van Drew.

"I'm going to be very honest with you," Youngblood said earlier this week. "I am a candidate with nothing to lose. Establishment Democrats do not like to have a candidate with nothing to lose. They like puppets."

She said the congressional district was being wrongly tagged as conservative.  "The people down here are really just broke," she said.

On Wednesday, after Van Drew touted his nomination of female judges and support of a black female prosecutor, Youngblood answered: "The nation sees the power of electing a woman and a woman of color. We are the base of the Democratic Party."

Suleiman urged candidates to run for office locally. Schenerman, the Cape May progressive, said he was strategizing about recruiting a progressive – possibly Cunningham, a Vineland native – to run to replace Van Drew in the state Senate's First District.

Beyond the gun debate, the race features a more familiar New Jersey dynamic, where party machine can trump nearly everything, including a national trend toward women and first-time candidates,  like Ashley Bennett's victory over Atlantic County Freeholder and Women's March jokester John Carman, and recent urgency for gun reform after the Parkland, Fla. shooting.

Does the endorsement by Norcross, and the county chairmen, all but ensuring crucial ballot position, make it game set match to the Pleasantville-practicing dentist from Cape May Courthouse?

Basically, yes, says Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University's Polling Institute.

"Van Drew is a name brand in his district, able to generate votes for himself and other candidates," Murray said. "The issue is this is New Jersey politics. In a different system, she may very well be a terrific candidate, but that's not the hand she was dealt in New Jersey for good or for ill."

At the forum, Cunningham saw it differently: "Your choice is simple: enable the machine or dismantle it."

Staff Writers Jonathan Tamari and Dylan Purcell contributed to this story.