New Jersey Rep. Jeff Van Drew’s leading opponent in the Republican primary has decided to run instead in a neighboring district, a change he announced Monday, a day before Trump hosts a rally that Van Drew hopes will gin up support from conservatives in his new party.
“Having the President fully endorse [Van Drew] and embrace him, it just doesn’t make sense for me to continue in this race,” Republican David Richter said. “I have endorsed Jeff Van Drew and will support his re-election campaign."
Richter stepped aside on the eve of Van Drew’s appearance with Trump at a rally in Wildwood, and three days after the emergence of a voicemail in which Van Drew told a voter, just weeks before he switched parties, that he “will not” vote for Trump.
"I haven’t voted for him, I didn’t support him, I will not vote for him,” Van Drew said in the Nov. 30 voicemail obtained by The Inquirer.
Since Van Drew defected to the GOP and pledged his “undying support” to Trump in December, the national Republican Party has thrown its support behind his candidacy, even though the longtime Democrat has voted with Trump only 7% of the time, according to FiveThirtyEight. Trump endorsed Van Drew, and a pro-Trump political group also provided more than $250,000 in air cover for Van Drew, in the form of online and TV ads.
Richter, who had previously vowed after Van Drew’s high-profile party switch to remain in the race against him, will join a crowded Republican primary field in New Jersey’s Third congressional district, which is currently represented by freshman Democrat Andy Kim. Trump won that district, which spans Burlington and Ocean Counties, by six points in 2016.
The early GOP frontrunner to face Kim, former Burlington County freeholder Kate Gibbs, has already been highlighted by House Republicans’ Young Guns program, which spotlights and aids promising candidates. John Novak, the mayor of Barnegat Township, and former Hainesport Mayor Anthony Porto are also running in the Republican primary.
Former White House political director Bill Stepien signed on as Richter’s campaign adviser, in a show of support for Richter from Trump’s political orbit that presaged a possible effort to nudge other candidates aside for Richter — much as Richter was nudged aside for Van Drew. Stepien, a New Jersey native, is also advising Trump and Van Drew in their reelection bids.
“Anyone who thinks they can push me around doesn’t know anything about #SouthJersey women,” Gibbs said in a Facebook post. “To our party leaders who like to talk about empowering and supporting young Republican women to run and serve, well, here I am. The ball is in your court.”
Kim, a former national security aide on Iraq issues under President Barack Obama, narrowly flipped the South Jersey district in 2018, defeating Republican incumbent Tom MacArthur by fewer than 4,000 votes.
“We look forward to seeing who makes it through the large primary field," Kim spokesperson Anthony DeAngelo said. "The voters know that Andy stands with them, not corporate funders and special interests.”
Republicans are relishing the chance to unseat Kim, which they see as crucial to taking back the House in 2020.
The Burlington County GOP has already endorsed Gibbs. Ocean County’s nominating convention happens in early March. Support from the county party can increase a candidate’s chances of getting a favorable ballot position in a primary.
The district spans the pricey New York and Philadelphia media markets. In 2018, it was the most expensive congressional race in New Jersey, with the campaigns combining to spend more than $11 million.
Richter, a millionaire construction executive, had $515,000 in campaign cash to begin the year, most of it from his own pockets. Gibbs had $135,000. Kim had $2.2 million, and no Democratic primary challenger.