WILDWOOD, N.J. — Jeff Van Drew got the Trump stamp of approval. That might be all he needs.
The New Jersey congressman and longtime Democrat faced intense scrutiny after defecting to the GOP in December and pledging his “undying support” to President Donald Trump. Republicans already in the race accused him of political expediency after his opposition to impeaching Trump alienated Democrats, and Democrats who donated money asked for refunds.
“If the commander-in-chief is endorsing Jeff Van Drew, we should welcome him," said Joseph Sterling, 53, of Leesburg, a former shipbuilding community in Cumberland County.
Sterling is a registered Republican. Now retired, he spent decades as a state corrections officer. He tends to vote for only Republican candidates. He went for Trump in 2016, and backed Van Drew’s GOP opponent in 2018. But this year, he plans to vote for the Democrat-turned-Republican because of Trump’s endorsement and Van Drew’s long-standing ties to the district. Van Drew represented parts of the area for years as a state lawmaker.
“He’s always been a guy that you can go to, and get a problem resolved," Sterling said. “I’m hoping he’s doing it for the right reasons. I wanna believe that. If he is, it’s a win-win. He brings a lot with him.”
For others, such as Cooper Terrell, 25, a manager at an amusement park in Mount Laurel, Trump’s endorsement is enough.
“He’s going to have my undying support,” said Terrell, of Linwood, using the same language from Van Drew’s pledge to Trump. “If a man is willing to sacrifice his political career to do what’s right, that’s more important than agreeing with him on every single topic.”
In the saga of Trump’s impeachment, Van Drew was a twist. He was a longtime Democrat who had won a Republican district in a deeply liberal state in 2018, and went on to be one of the only House Democrats to vote against impeachment.
He switched parties shortly after an internal campaign poll made clear how much his impeachment stance had imperiled his chances in a Democratic primary. And just days before the Wildwood rally, the strength of Van Drew’s newfound loyalty to the president was called into question with the emergence of a voicemail he had left for a voter shortly before his party switch, in which he said of Trump: “I haven’t voted for him, I didn’t support him, I will not vote for him."
But at a moment when Trump’s impeachment acquittal shows that his control of the GOP is almost total, the quick embrace of Van Drew by local politicians and grassroots conservatives shows how much the party faithful are willing to overlook once Trump has spoken.
“Very clearly Trump has remade the Republican Party in his image,” said Ben Dworkin, director of public policy at Rowan University.
Van Drew didn’t return messages seeking comment for this article.
“Having the president fully endorse [Van Drew] and embrace him, it just doesn’t make sense for me to continue in this race,” Richter said last month. “I have endorsed Jeff Van Drew and will support his reelection campaign."
Republican Brian Fitzherbert also bowed out. His remaining challenger, Bob Patterson, had just $95,000 in campaign cash to start the year, compared with Van Drew’s $1.1 million.
“We’ve seen the full weight of the White House political operation bearing down on the Second Congressional district of New Jersey,” Dworkin said.
Patterson, a former Trump administration official, has continued to emphasize Van Drew’s liberal voting record. Van Drew has voted with Trump only 7% of the time, according to an analysis by FiveThirtyEight, and he has a 100% rating from Planned Parenthood Action Fund.
“Switcheroo Van Drew wouldn’t know conservative if it smacked him across the face," Patterson said in a statement last month.
Republican voters interviewed didn’t see Van Drew’s voting record and party switch as much of a problem.
“Trump switched,” said Bob Newman, of North Cape May, referring to Trump’s status as a former Democrat. “I think he endeared himself to the Republicans. I think he did what his conscience told him to do."
Trump’s support is also helping the congressman’s bottom line. Van Drew’s campaign filings show he’s starting to shed Democrats’ financial support and replace it with small-dollar Republican donations. He took in about $300,000 in individual contributions during the last quarter of 2019. Almost half — or about $145,000 — came from conservative donors using WinRed, a Republican fund-raising platform that processes online donations. Only 5% of WinRed donations came from New Jersey.
If Van Drew wins the Republican primary, his general election contest will be much different.
“Van Drew now has a target on his back,” said Patrick Murray, director of polling at the Monmouth University Polling Institute. “I think whoever the Democratic nominee is, if they are halfway decent at fund-raising, a lot of money will be pouring in from around the country. ... I wouldn’t be surprised if the Democrats out-raise Van Drew.”
On the Democratic side, Brigid Callahan Harrison, a professor at Montclair State University, has shown some fund-raising strength, raking in $45,000 in the two weeks after filing election paperwork Dec. 16. And 57% of her haul came from small-dollar donors. Another Democratic candidate, Amy Kennedy — who wasn’t required to file a 2019 campaign-finance report because she didn’t enter the race until January — is expected to be a strong fund-raiser. Her husband, former U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy, once chaired the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
But the district — which stretches from the Philadelphia suburbs in Gloucester County south to Cape May, and from north of Atlantic City into Burlington County — is competitive. Trump carried it by five points in 2016, while Barack Obama won 53% of the vote there each time he ran.
For voters such as Sterling, the retired corrections officer, Trump’s support is what matters most.