HAMMONTON, N.J. — On a rain-drenched Columbus Day morning, Jeff Van Drew stood beneath a tent emblazoned with an Italian flag and spoke about his wife, Ricarda, and her parents. The Villanis, he said, saw America as the land of opportunity for immigrant families.
“Today is about cherishing your heritage, cherishing the people who came here and worked so hard so we can all have the opportunities they had,” he told about 50 business and community leaders at the Sons of Italy lodge here.
Van Drew, who is fighting to keep his seat in Congress, has attended Columbus Day events like this one for years. The growing debate over whether to take down monuments to the Italian explorer or rethink the holiday named after him wasn’t going to change that.
“I think the beauty of what we should do in America is, it’s not to tear away what other people have accomplished,” he said. “It’s to build from that with what we know now."
Van Drew has been a fixture of South Jersey politics for decades — a conservative Democrat who long served in the state Legislature before flipping a GOP-held congressional district that Democrats thought only someone with his political profile could flip. Since the 1990s, he has won elections across a growing swath of South Jersey, from Cape May and Atlantic City to the Philadelphia suburbs of Burlington and Gloucester Counties.
But now Van Drew is trying to do something he’s never done before: win an election as a Republican. And almost a year after his high-profile defection from the Democratic Party and a pledge of “undying support” for President Donald Trump, Van Drew says he hasn’t really changed.
“I’m the same person,” Van Drew said in an interview this month. “I was always moderate to conservative, and there were always folks when I was a Blue Dog Democrat who wouldn’t support me. This is who I am.”
His decision to leave the party outraged South Jersey Democrats. It inspired one of them, Amy Kennedy, to run against him in what has emerged as one of the most competitive congressional races in the country. A few weeks before Election Day, Van Drew acknowledged that many Democrats won’t vote for him. But he said just as many conservative Democrats and Republicans in the state’s 2nd Congressional District understand his decision to bolt from a party he said has become too liberal.
“They’ll say, ‘I supported you before, but you’re making it so much easier now,’” Van Drew said. “I get that a lot.”
The district, which covers all of Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland, and Salem Counties, and parts of four other counties, is a sprawling political battleground. Trump narrowly won here in 2016, following back-to-back victories by Barack Obama. More than 30% of registered voters aren’t affiliated with either party. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report, which tracks House races, rates it a “Toss Up.”
Kennedy, a former teacher and mental health advocate who is married to ex-U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy, has run TV ads that accuse Van Drew of betraying voters to save his political career. A recent Monmouth University poll showed her holding a narrow lead, with almost half of independents saying they were bothered by Van Drew’s party-switch.
A former mayor, country freeholder, assemblyman, and state senator, Van Drew ran for Congress in 2018 as a reach-across-the-aisle candidate. The retired dentist had a record of winning elections in Republican parts of the state and enjoyed wide support from business groups and unions.
But his political embrace of Trump made him toxic to some of those groups.
It can be difficult to gauge the state of congressional races, where independent polling is sparse. But by some metrics, Kennedy appears to have the upper hand in the homestretch, especially considering the growing disapproval for Trump that Republicans worry will cost them seats in the House.
While Kennedy touts endorsements from the likes of Obama and campaigns with Gov. Phil Murphy, Van Drew’s public appearances have been comparatively low-key. Other than a January rally with Trump in Wildwood and a brief speaking slot at his convention, it’s unclear how much Republicans are going to bat for their newest colleague while they play defense across the congressional map. Van Drew’s campaign website has gone months without being updated.
And thanks at least partly to her connection to the storied political dynasty, Kennedy has raised large sums for a congressional challenger. So she and her Democratic allies are swamping Van Drew and Republicans with TV ads. Kennedy had spent $1.2 million on the airwaves through last week since winning the July 7 Democratic primary, far more than Van Drew’s $180,000, according to the ad-tracking firm Advertising Analytics. Outside Democratic groups have spent an additional $2.5 million, compared with about $750,000 for Republicans.
Van Drew said he still had an advantage when it came to name recognition, and that his campaign ads will ramp up in the final weeks of the race.
While some Republicans see Van Drew’s new political identity as a more natural fit, they question whether it undercuts the formula that got him elected over and over: drawing voters from both ends to meet him in the middle.
Seth Grossman, the GOP nominee who ran against then-Democrat Van Drew in 2018, wondered if the loyalty Van Drew has counted on before will be enough in a very high-turnout election.
“He needs heroic participation,” Grossman said. "I don’t see that heroic effort being made right now.”
Van Drew said his record is proof of his independence, and the reason voters will stick with him. He supported bills to strengthen the Affordable Care Act and opposes repealing it without a replacement. He was one of about two dozen House Republicans who voted for an emergency funding bill for the U.S. Postal Service in August. He’s helped deliver funding to South Jersey hospitals, infrastructure projects, and the Coast Guard.
“I like working with everybody, and I like a better political climate than what we have now,” Van Drew said.
It was his opposition to impeaching Trump that ultimately drove him from the party last year. But Atlantic County executive Dennis Levinson, a Republican who has known Van Drew for years, said he was baffled by the “astonishment" over Van Drew’s switch.
“Everyone in the district knew he was pro-military, pro-cop, pro-gun ... and he was all those things when the Democrats embraced him," Levinson said.
Republican Jesse O’Leary Kurtz, an Atlantic City councilman, said much of the Democratic vote in Atlantic County would go to Kennedy, especially in mainland communities where she has deep family roots — her father was a county freeholder — and where women are working to elect her and Joe Biden.
But Kurtz said Van Drew has also made inroads, including among members of the Hindu community, who have noted Trump’s support for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Sumon Majumder, an Atlantic City police officer, said Van Drew has also found support among local Bangladeshi voters — particularly business owners who bristled under Murphy’s coronavirus restrictions and disapproved of unrest that followed peaceful protests over the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd.
“South Asians are voting for Van Drew as a Republican,” Majumder said. “He attended every meeting, every social activity. ... He kept his word, giving service to the community, giving back what he promises us.”
In Buena Vista, a township in Atlantic County long run by Democrats, Diana Chandler was one of many residents who happened to catch a caravan of cars parading through town one Sunday morning this month, horns blaring, to promote local Republican candidates.
Chandler, wearing a pink Women for Trump shirt, said she hadn’t seen or heard from Van Drew’s campaign yet. But she’s all in for him.
“He has more of an independent view,” she said. “I know he went from [Democratic Party] to Republican Party. I agree with him.”