Not long after becoming a Republican, Jeff Van Drew went to an upscale holiday party in Atlantic City. Some of his longtime supporters were also there. And they weren’t happy.
Van Drew — a New Jersey congressman who was a Democrat when they gave him money — had, in rapid succession, voted against President Donald Trump’s impeachment, switched parties, and pledged his “undying support" to Trump. That evening, one of his furious former allies decided to confront him.
“I went up to him and told him that I thought he’d betrayed us," said Liane Levenson, of Margate. “I told him I wanted my money back."
She’s not alone. Longtime Van Drew backers are still reeling from his high-profile defection in December. A growing number of donors are asking for their money back, and some are threatening legal action if they don’t get a refund.
Levenson and her husband, Lloyd, donated $2,800 to Van Drew’s reelection campaign in August, the maximum amount allowed for a primary. They’ve held fund-raisers for him and know him personally. And while they’ve had political disagreements with him before, nothing affected their relationship with Van Drew like his party switch.
“It goes beyond disappointment, it goes beyond surprise," Levenson said. “I’ve totally lost all respect for him."
Asked about backlash from longtime donors, Van Drew said in a text message: “A lot of people are saying wonderful nice things.” He didn’t say whether or not he would refund campaign contributions. Levenson said Van Drew promised her a refund privately.
Van Drew is known for having deep ties to his South Jersey district. He has represented parts of it since 2002, when he became a state lawmaker. Democrats recruited him to run for Congress in 2018 after longtime Republican Rep. Frank LoBiondo decided to retire, partly because of Van Drew’s moderate brand and long-standing relationships with voters. That year, he flipped a congressional district Trump had won by five points.
Many Van Drew supporters who have known him for years say they are shocked and confused.
"I don’t recognize him,” said Barbara Jones, of Ocean View, who donated $2,800 to his campaign in August. “He’s not trustworthy. ... I feel like I was treated like an idiot.”
Van Drew has a complicated task ahead of him. Many of his Democratic supporters feel betrayed, while Republicans are skeptical of his conservative bona fides. Van Drew has voted with Trump only 7% of the time since taking office, according to a tally by the website FiveThirtyEight. He has a 100% rating from the Planned Parenthood Action Fund.
His reelection will be one of the most closely watched House races in the country, and will undoubtedly be expensive. Trump has endorsed him, and will host a rally in his congressional district, in Wildwood, on Jan. 28. Van Drew has also received more than $250,000 in political air cover from a Trump-affiliated PAC, in the form of digital and TV ads.
Republican and Democratic challengers for Van Drew’s seat have called for him to return much of the $900,000 in campaign cash he had as of his latest federal filing in the fall, all of which was raised while he was a Democrat. But Van Drew still hopes he can count on longtime supporters for more money.
“I want to be very clear: I have not changed,” Van Drew wrote in a recent letter to backers obtained by The Inquirer. “I switched my party affiliation because the Democratic Party has become a party led by extreme socialists.”
“I have been a lot of things in life ... but one thing I have never been is a hypocrite,” he added. He went on to ask supporters for a “contribution of $50, $75, $100 or some other amount," telling them, “You better believe I will have a BIG target on my back."
Jones said she was angered by the letter: “The Jeff Van Drew I knew would never have penned his name to something like that. ... I’m just stunned. We’re done.”
Switching political parties is rare and can spark heated blowback from the jilted. In 2009, longtime Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Arlen Specter switched to the Democratic Party, and faced similar calls for refunds from his donors.
“My father offered people their contributions back,” Shanin Specter said of the senator, who died in 2012. “He did not lose lifelong supporters. But some people were very upset, though they tended to be those with whom he did not have a close relationship.”
The Federal Election Commission doesn’t require candidates to return campaign contributions to donors who request a refund, according to FEC spokesperson Myles Martin. Some former supporters have contemplated suing Van Drew if he doesn’t do so, but campaign-finance experts said there would be little chance of winning such a lawsuit.
"There’s no satisfaction-guaranteed provision in that gift,” said Darrell West, vice president of governance studies at the Brookings Institution. “I would be surprised if he gave the money back. ... He’s going to need a lot of money to contest the next election. This district is going to be very high on the target list for Democrats.”
While Trump’s rally next week could help gin up Republican support for Van Drew, several GOP candidates who were already running before he defected are still in the race. Six Democrats have announced they will run for their party’s nomination to represent the district, which stretches from the Philadelphia suburbs in Gloucester County south to Cape May, and from north of Atlantic City into Burlington County.
One Republican candidate, David Richter, is a millionaire who has vowed to stay in through the primary. Richter said he raised $240,000 in the last quarter of 2019, and had $515,000 in campaign cash to start the year, most of which has come from his own pockets.