WASHINGTON — New Jersey Democratic Rep. Jeff Van Drew declined Tuesday to confirm that he’s moving to the Republican Party, but suggested that an announcement is coming soon.
“I’m not discussing any of that now. There will be a time,” he said as he rode an elevator to an afternoon House vote. “I’m reevaluating my life and my thoughts.”
Van Drew’s imminent party switch, reportedly engineered with President Donald Trump’s support, has put the South Jersey congressman in the middle of a political storm as the House prepares to vote Wednesday on Trump’s impeachment.
Most of his staff has resigned in protest, and Republicans in his South Jersey district have ranged from lukewarm to openly hostile in welcoming their possible new ally
Van Drew said that he trusted the judgment of what he called the independent-minded voters in the district, and that he would definitely seek a second term in 2020. A longtime conservative-leaning Democrat, he captured the district for his current party for the first time in decades in 2018.
Later on Tuesday, reporters crowded around Van Drew off the House floor and he was asked whether he’d made a decision. “I am where I am, and you’ll hear in a relatively short period of time," he said, adding, “Any decision that I will make will be based upon ultimately reconciling the philosophy that I feel in my heart.
“I have an election coming up, and if they disagree with what I’ve done, then they will vote me out, and that’s something I will very willingly accept," Van Drew added. "That’s their right.”
Van Drew said he had not yet spoken with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) about his future but had been in contact with Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D., Md.,), the No. 2 Democrat in the House.
He refused to comment on how his endorsement of New Jersey Democratic Sen. Cory Booker for president would play in a Republican primary, or if he had an appearance planned with Trump. And he suggested his aides were forced to quit or be blackballed from jobs in Democratic politics.
Other than his vocal opposition to impeachment, Van Drew’s voting record largely aligns with House Democrats. Asked what he agrees with Republicans on, he mentioned the perception that many Democrats “do not believe the idea that America is any better than any other country in the world.”
Van Drew’s stance on impeachment eroded his support among Democrats in his district, and last week he received pressure from local party leaders urging him to vote yes on the articles of impeachment drafted by House Democrats.
Meanwhile, Van Drew’s former staffers were making moves as if he’s leaving the party.
Six senior aides who resigned from the New Jersey Democrat’s office after the revelation that he plans to become a Republican will soon be hired by Democratic Rep. Frank Pallone, according to two people familiar with the matter. Those aides, based in Washington, will work on “short-term projects” for the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, one of the people said.
Pallone, also a New Jersey Democrat, chairs that committee. Pallone said Monday that he would be requesting a refund from Van Drew’s campaign for the $10,000 his political action committee contributed this year.
Trump took to Twitter on Tuesday to say that Van Drew is “very popular” and “not easily replaceable." He has yet to formally endorse Van Drew, and it remains to be seen how hard Trump would campaign for the longtime Democrat in a Republican primary.
Van Drew has said he opposes the Trump impeachment because it has “torn our country apart," and that voters in 2020, not Congress, should decide Trump’s fate. He was one of just two House Democrats who voted against the impeachment inquiry into Trump’s dealings with Ukraine.
Nothing has changed his mind about impeachment, he said Tuesday. “I think it’s actually a clumsy tool that is meant for very, very serious issues,” Van Drew said.
Five senior aides penned a joint resignation letter Sunday to Van Drew’s chief of staff, Allison Murphy, saying his “decision to join the ranks of the Republican Party led by Donald Trump does not align with the values we brought to this job when we joined his office.”
“We greatly respect Congressman Van Drew and are deeply saddened and disappointed by his decision. As such, we can no longer in good conscience continue our service.”
The letter was signed by legislative director Javier Gamboa, communications director Mackenzie Lucas, deputy chiefs of staff Edward Kaczmarski and Justin O’Leary, and legislative assistant Caroline Wood.
CeCe Doherty, director of constituency relations, also resigned on Sunday.
“Defeating Trump has and always will be the main goal for me,” Doherty said. “It’s the reason I got involved in politics. I could not in good conscience continue working in an office where mutual morals and values were no longer present.”
Murphy is expected to remain in her role as chief of staff.
The South Jersey district — with most of its territory in Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland, and Salem Counties — leans conservative but is very much a swing district. Slightly more than 50% of the district voted for Trump in 2016, a five-point margin over Hillary Clinton. Yet Barack Obama won it twice with 53% of the vote.