South Jersey Democratic congressional candidate Jeff Van Drew felt the wrath of a local teen when Emily McGrath of Egg Harbor Township confronted him with evidence that he had accepted donations from the NRA at a forum in February, a week after the mass shooting at a school in Parkland, Fla.
Over the weekend, Van Drew, a state senator from Cape May County, felt the glare from another teen, this one with a national following: David Hogg, the student activist who survived the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
"Remember both Democrats and Republicans take #NRABloodMoney," Hogg tweeted to his 778,000 followers. "Just look up New Jersey state senator @JeffVanDrew, he's a Democrat with an A rating from the NRA."
The Saturday afternoon tweet engergized supporters of Van Drew's primary opponents in the race to replace retiring Republican U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo in New Jersey's Second Congressional District. It had received more than 15,000 likes by Monday morning. The New Jersey primary is June 5.
Van Drew is facing three Democratic progressives: Tanzie Youngblood, a retired teacher from Gloucester County who was featured on Time Magazine's "Avengers" cover; Will Cunningham, a former staffer with U.S. Sen. Cory Booker; and Nate Kleinman, an activist farmer.
The race is viewed as likely to flip the seat from Republican to Democrat, a key piece of the Democratic strategy to regain control of the U.S. House of Representatives in the 2018 midterm elections. The Democratic establishment views the popular Van Drew as the best route to regaining the seat in what it sees as a more conservative district that supported LoBiondo for 24 years.
Van Drew's campaign may have been trying to head off exactly this kind of national attention when they sought and received a "Gun Sense Candidate" distinction from the national Moms Demand Action pro-gun control group, infuriating and puzzling his opponents, who called on Moms Demand to rescind the distinction.
Van Drew has said publicly that he would support expanded background checks and regulations of silencers. But he has said in interviews that he generally opposes the additional gun law regulations now being considered in New Jersey. Those bills will not reach the state Senate, where Van Drew would cast his votes, until two days after the primary.
His campaign acknowledged that he received $1,000 from the NRA in 2008, plus $2,700 in 2007 and 2008 from a lesser-known gun lobby, the Newtown Connecticut-based National Shooting Sports Foundation Inc. But Van Drew has said he has not taken any NRA donations since then, and would refuse any donations.
Moms Demand, in turn, said the distinction was not an endorsement, and that the group welcomed candidates whose views were evolving and who "have pledged to support common-sense gun safety measures if elected into office."
Van Drew has yet to publicly explain why he sought the distinction while also promoting himself as a gun-rights advocate, and his office ignored repeated requests from the Inquirer and Daily News for information on how he answered the questions required by the group, including questions on concealed carry reciprocity, expanded background checks and regulations on silencers.
Hogg's tweet was hailed by progressives in the sprawling district, who have struggled to counter Van Drew's fundraising and support from the establishment Democratic Party, including powerbroker George E. Norcross III and the national Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Hogg's tweet occurred during a candidate's forum held in the district attended by all the Democratic candidates except Van Drew, who organizers said did not respond to his invitation.
The Van Drew campaign did not respond to a message for comment over the weekend.
Angela Bardoe, a progressive in the district, thanked Hogg "for weighing in on this obvious contradiction," and urged voters to consider Van Drew's opponents in the primary.
Some responses, though, cautioned that Hogg and others were being short-sighted, and that Van Drew was still the best bet to head off a centrist Republican opponent.
"NJ02 has been R for decades," tweeted Mel R @coastalelite22. "Incremental change is better than no change at all. Nominate a prog here in June and all you do is keep this red seat red."
McGrath, now 18 and eligible to vote in the primary, said she hoped the attention from Hogg "will inspire voters to go with someone who possesses true democratic values."