Her story was always a surprise: a South Jersey middle-school teacher who met and married a Kennedy and convinced him to move to Brigantine.

From there, Amy and Patrick Kennedy had four children, and along with Amy’s oldest from her first marriage, settled into their house on the bay — a quieter life for the former congressman from Rhode Island, to be sure. She was thought to be a good influence on him.

On Tuesday night, with Patrick standing off to one side with their children, and Gov. Phil Murphy on the other, Amy Kennedy, 41, claimed victory in a congressional primary that pitted her iconic Democratic family against South Jersey’s powerful Democratic machine.

Kennedy will now bring the Democratic bona fides of her own family — her father was an Atlantic County freeholder — and that of her in-laws to bear against freshman U.S. Rep. Jeff Van Drew, a former longtime Democrat who switched parties last year and memorably pledged his “undying support” to President Donald Trump in the Oval Office.

The understated Kennedy, her five children eating cupcakes nearby with their cousin and dad, smiled broadly after taking off her cloth face mask to cheers outside her campaign headquarters in Northfield.

“My message to Jeff Van Drew tonight is: We have had enough and we demand better,” Kennedy told supporters near the school where she taught eighth-grade history. “We have had enough of you and Donald Trump.”

Van Drew, a former state senator from Dennis Township in Cape May County, became a Republican late last year after his opposition to Trump’s impeachment enraged Democrats. Trump then traveled to Wildwood for a rally in January to cement their political embrace.

Van Drew has never looked back. Over the weekend, he was in the middle of a huge Trump boat parade on Absecon Island that left bridges raised for hours. He took to Twitter, Trump’s favorite medium, late Tuesday to thank the president for his ”unwavering support.”

Not just a Kennedy

By the time Amy Kennedy spoke Tuesday night on Route 9, power broker George Norcross had conceded that his candidate, Brigid Callahan Harrison, had lost, and pledged to work to defeat Van Drew — a candidate he long supported as Democrat.

Murphy, meanwhile, like Patrick Kennedy, a Massachusetts native, was taking a victory lap of his own in his ongoing battle with Norcross. Wearing a festive shirt festooned with sailboats, pineapples, and palm trees, Murphy declared that Democrats had “won the lottery” in Kennedy: an educator and mental health advocate with four generations of South Jersey roots who had married “one of the great political families of either party in the history of our country.”

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy at the victory party for Democratic congressional candidate Amy Kennedy in Northfield on Tuesday.
TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy at the victory party for Democratic congressional candidate Amy Kennedy in Northfield on Tuesday.

Somewhere in the crowd was Kennedy’s father, Jerry Savell, a veteran politician whose connections in Atlantic County were arguably the overlooked ingredient in his daughter’s victory, in which she spent $1.4 million, fueled by a $500,000 personal loan.

At least that would be Amy Kennedy’s analysis.

She and her mom, Leni Savell, another former schoolteacher who also made quite a few calls on her daughter’s behalf, visited polling places late Tuesday afternoon, and at every stop, ran into somebody they knew.

“That’s when you get the sense of how small-town it is, and how many people are rooting for you,” Kennedy said Wednesday. “I taught that one’s daughter or I graduated with that person. And my mom was with me, and if I didn’t know them, she did. There was that feeling of how close to home this is.”

She was, of course, also fielding calls from Kennedy relatives. She laughed when asked if winning an election would be viewed as passing their ultimate test.

“They’ve just been so welcoming from day one,” she said. “There are no requirements, no measure of trying to be part of the family.”

And while the Kennedy name and deep financial pockets may have helped supporters to see her candidacy as viable — and kept dollars flowing — Kennedy said the general election will not hinge on the political legacy of her husband’s family.

“I think it’s just the opposite,” she said. “I think it is the local that really has to be the focus: Showing that I understand the district is what’s going to matter for the general election.”

‘Amy Kennedy is a local person'

Republican Atlantic County Executive Dennis Levinson also knows the Savells well, and thinks those roots worked for her. He said Kennedy will be a tough sell in the general election for the fickle 2nd District that comprises Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland, and Salem Counties, along with parts of four other counties.

“Amy Kennedy is a local person,” Levinson said. “The family is very much entrenched in Atlantic County politics.”

Despite the uncertainty of the mostly vote-by-mail election, Kennedy easily defeated Harrison, a political science professor at Montclair State University, and Will Cunningham, an attorney and former congressional oversight investigator.

Kennedy won the backing of the powerful Atlantic City Democratic Committee, and the prime ballot spot in Atlantic County. She drew the support of progressives, still upset the party had backed Van Drew in 2018. She is now one step closer to a position once held by her husband, a former congressman from Rhode Island and the son of former Sen. Edward “Ted” Kennedy.

Patrick Kennedy said Tuesday night that his wife’s resounding win should worry Van Drew. He chided a New Jersey system in which candidates get favorable position according to county parties’ endorsements.

“The people of the 2nd District chose and voted for her even though they had to go all the way over to column F to find her name,” Patrick Kennedy said.

Preliminary election returns showed that Kennedy defeated Harrison in all eight counties, even though in six of those Harrison held the favorable position.

Patrick Murray, a pollster at Monmouth University, said that turnout was on track to far exceed previous presidential primary years, and that the vote-by-mail process had likely diluted the party’s influence.

“If you send ballots to everybody and they can send them back, you’re going to get a higher turnout,” he said. “What that means is you have less control over who actually votes.”

Ready for change?

On Route 9 late Tuesday, Kennedy declared South Jersey ready for change. But is her family? Is Patrick?

Patrick Kennedy has been open about his struggles with addiction, and has been in recovery pretty much since he married Amy. A former eight-term congressman, he chose not to run again in 2010. It was right around the same time he met Amy at a mental health forum in Atlantic City.

Their life in Brigantine, Amy said, feels “very complete.” Since marrying Patrick, she said, she has felt a change in her own life that has paved the way for this latest chapter.

“The change has been in feeling very supported and able to build our family,” she said. “I can focus now on how to be of service to other people.”

Asked whether entering the political fray was risky for her family and its hard-fought stability, Amy said they “feel comfortable this is a step I can take.”

“I think that’s something of course we’ve talked about, and just have to really be committed to recovery always, and also trying to do the next right thing,” she said. “He’s able to keep the focus on our family and our life here. I’m able to take on a different role.”