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Inside the ‘very awkward’ South Jersey congressional race between former friends Jeff Van Drew and Seth Grossman

Jeff Van Drew, the conservative Democrat, is labeled a "Pelosi liberal," and Seth Grossman is all MAGA all the time in New Jersey's Second Congressional District.

New Jersey 2nd congressional district candidate Democrat Jeff Van Drew (right) talks with Cape May County Freeholder candidate Democrat Jeremiah Schenerman during a young professionals fund raiser at Mud Hen Brewing Company in Wildwood, NJ on October 14, 2018.
New Jersey 2nd congressional district candidate Democrat Jeff Van Drew (right) talks with Cape May County Freeholder candidate Democrat Jeremiah Schenerman during a young professionals fund raiser at Mud Hen Brewing Company in Wildwood, NJ on October 14, 2018.Read moreElizabeth Robertson

WILDWOOD, N.J. — Jeff Van Drew has told the wedding story from the night before and wants it told again. It pretty much sums up the weird but true, dizzying, and unexpectedly personal campaign in which this smooth South Jersey pol is reaching for the Second District Congressional ring against — of all people! — Seth Grossman, his longtime friend.

The same Seth Grossman who never missed a Van Drew family end-of-summer pig roast in Dennis Township — until this year when, it goes without saying, he was not invited. Now Grossman is all that stands in the way of Van Drew, a moderate Democrat, flipping the House seat long held by retiring U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo, a moderate Republican.

Grossman, of course, got himself into a national kerfuffle the minute he unexpectedly won the Republican primary in June, when an opposition research group released a video the next day of Grossman saying "diversity is a bunch of crap and un-American," which led to similar stories until the national Republicans dumped him.

Around the country, the reaction was Who is this guy? But in South Jersey, people, especially Van Drew, already knew.

Seth Grossman: the guy who holds court Saturdays at the Shore Diner on behalf of liberty and prosperity, and, more recently, Trump and MAGA, files more government challenging lawsuits than anyone else in Atlantic County, and has probably run for more offices, up to and including governor of New Jersey. Who is now running hard to the right of Van Drew, whose biggest obstacle in the Democratic primary was that Democrats thought he was too conservative.

Van Drew is a longtime state senator from Cape May County (born in Paterson) who prides himself on appealing to Republicans and Democrats, and insists that approach can work in this polarized age in a district that twice voted for Obama then narrowly for Trump: an amiable dentist whose office sits on a residential street in Pleasantville, inoffensive to anyone.

‘Durwood, this is Italian music’

On this campaign Sunday, Van Drew, who favors a folded multipoint pocket square in his suit jacket, and requests Scotch, served in a coupe cocktail glass, from the bar at the Mud Hen brewery in Wildwood, has a story.

The story is this: the night before at the Buena Vista Country Club, Van Drew was headed for a Hispanic Association event, a key demographic in a district that includes all of Atlantic, Cape May, Salem, and Cumberland and parts of Gloucester, Camden, Ocean, and Burlington Counties. He and aide Durwood Pinkett had been crisscrossing the district and are on about their sixth event. They enter the room, start the campaign schmooze, head for the bar to get a drink, continue on until Van Drew stops.

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"Durwood, this is Italian music," Van Drew says.

They look around and realize: They're at a wedding! Being Van Drew, he won't slip out without apologizing to the bride, who, it turns out, is a union official and voting Democratic and, by the way, has some issues to discuss. And so they do. They are then led by the staff through a service door to the correct room with the Hispanic group and pop out, as if from a wedding cake, on stage, drinks still in hand from the wedding.

It's been that kind of campaign, with the two former friends awkwardly thrust into larger-than-South-Jersey roles in a plot set by the national climate. At least that's how Grossman sees the campaign, as he pegs Van Drew with the ill-fitting "Pelosi liberal" label to rally his red-hatted troops.

It has worn on a friendship that began when Grossman's father, a dentist and researcher (and FDR Democrat, Van Drew notes), served as a mentor to Van Drew.

"It's very awkward," says Grossman,"I'll admit. In normal times, I would not be running against Jeff Van Drew. I like him. We've cooperated on many things."

"Yes it is," Van Drew says a few days later. "It is awkward a little bit."

Van Drew points to one moment at their Oct. 10 debate at Stockton University (during which Grossman took shots at Stockton faculty, leadership, and curriculum, causing students to boo) when the topic turned to health care and people seeking basic care at emergency rooms.

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Grossman said: "That gives me an idea on how to find all those illegal aliens: Send them down to the emergency room. I think we'll find a whole bunch."

"That's not conservative," Van Drew said a few days later. "That's just mean. And it's not even true. I know it sounds very naive but one of the things I really, really want to do is bring people together. This is a very, very unhealthy climate we have right now."

"The Seth Grossman that I really know was intellectually conservative, much more conservative than me always, a great lover of history, particularly American history, but not that mean stuff," Van Drew continues. "And he was a pretty straightforward honest guy. I know in politics everyone supposedly fibs but he really is doing a little bit of fibbing, on what you voted for and what you didn't vote for."

This is about as negative as Van Drew goes, backing in apologetically. At the debate, he said, "I always try to be nice … " then sharply called Grossman out for his diversity comment and other postings.

For Grossman, the fallout from those comments is a bit of deja vu from his college years, when he lost friends as one of the few conservative voices on the Duke campus of the late 1960s.

‘Go ask Noah’

It is the day after the debate, and Grossman is at the Soup Fellowship at Christ Episcopal Church in Somers Point, down the road from his solo law office that also serves as campaign headquarters. With all the signs, you can't miss it as you come off the Longport bridge.

It's a small group, but Grossman is feeling good, in his element, like at the Shore Diner, speaking expansively over vegetable soup, including about climate change, which he dismissed at the debate by saying "Go ask Noah."

Grossman thinks Van Drew's middle-of-the-road approach may not work this year,  though Van Drew has wide support from business groups like Realtors (and the dental lobby) and unions, and holds commanding leads in polling and fund-raising.

"The country is so polarized nobody is even trying to persuade any independents," Grossman said. "Because there's hardly any independents left."

Pollster Patrick Murray of Monmouth University believes the race so noncompetitive he refuses to do any polling. "It's locked in the vault," for Van Drew, Murray said.

Van Drew wants to be a problem solver, a reach-across-the-aisle congressman whose focus is South Jersey, not unlike the last 24 years under LoBiondo, who took great care to protect local institutions like the FAA Tech Center and guard against threats to the coastal economy like off-shore drilling. Van Drew has long won elections as a Democrat in deeply Republican Cape May County. He believes voters will turn to him to continue that role.

And while some progressives have not made their peace with Van Drew, who they say blocked them on Facebook pages; others, including Emily McGrath, the then-Egg Harbor Township High School senior who confronted Van Drew about past NRA contributions (he returned them and does not now accept any), are now Team Van Drew.

"I think Grossman made it very easy," said Jeremiah Schenerman, a formerly anti-Van Drew progressive. Schenerman is running for the Cape May County Board of Chosen Freeholders and would be just the third Democrat elected to the board since the Civil War. The last one was Van Drew.

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