The Republican establishment is starting to fall in line for Jeff Van Drew.
A week after the New Jersey congressman and longtime Democrat defected to the GOP in an Oval Office meeting where he pledged his “undying support” to President Donald Trump, the political apparatus of Van Drew’s new party is going to work for him. The president has endorsed Van Drew. A Trump-allied political action committee spent $250,000 on TV and digital ads supporting him. And the candidate who had formerly been seen as the Republican front-runner in the South Jersey district is shedding establishment support.
David Richter has been removed from the National Republican Campaign Committee’s “Young Guns” program, which spotlights and aids promising GOP House candidates. Two campaign consultants have left Richter’s team. Republican strategists who once railed against Van Drew for his “socialist views" are now trying to clear the field for him.
“A week and a half ago I was a front-runner,” Richter said. “Now I’m being treated like a pariah by my own party."
The NRCC’s shunning of Richter isn’t surprising: As House Republicans’ official campaign arm, its first job is to reelect GOP incumbents, and Van Drew now is one. But it’s nevertheless striking given the group’s past rhetoric.
Last month, the NRCC said Van Drew “remains a huge supporter of the socialist policies” that it said led three state lawmakers — who ran as the “Van Drew Team” — to lose in November legislative elections. The group also decried Van Drew as a “proud backer” of Democratic presidential candidate Cory Booker. In May, the NRCC slammed Van Drew for “having a lengthy record of going all-in on abortion,” pointing to his 100% rating from the Planned Parenthood Action Fund.
But after Van Drew’s opposition to impeaching Trump prompted him to switch parties, the NRCC removed those statements from its websites.
Richter faulted the NRCC for his shrinking team, saying the group “basically demanded that any consultants who expect to work cooperatively with the party not work for primary challengers.” NRCC spokesperson Michael McAdams said the group doesn’t “blacklist” consultants who work against incumbents.
“Our firm made a decision not to work against a party endorsed incumbent,” said Chris Russell, one of the two advisers who left Richter’s campaign. “That was our choice. We felt it was a conflict.”
Even as Richter is abandoned by national Republicans, he’s using his personal wealth to stay in the race, making for a potentially bitter contested primary campaign.
“I’ve got half-a-million dollars sitting in my campaign account right now,” Richter said, “and I’m prepared to put another half a million dollars in.”
Richter, a millionaire who ran a construction management firm, said voters will see through Van Drew’s party switch as political opportunism, and provide room for him to prove he is the true conservative in the race.
“I continue to think the party faithful who have been fighting against Van Drew for 20 years … are not going to line up," Richter said. “They are not inclined to line up behind Jeff Van Drew just because the president tells them to.”
While the GOP at the national level has been quick to support Van Drew, it remains to be seen how local Republican leaders will respond. Some, like state Sen. Mike Testa, who cochair’s Trump’s reelection campaign in New Jersey, voiced support for Van Drew in the context of a Trump endorsement.
“We have mutually agreed to follow President Donald J. Trump’s lead on the issue,” Testa said recently, referring to the Cape May County GOP, which he also chairs. “We expect all county committee members and local elected Republicans will join us.”
Others, like Atlantic County GOP chairman Keith Davis, have said they will wait until party activists meet at county conventions to issue formal endorsements.
Local Republicans have hardly been welcoming, questioning Van Drew’s mostly liberal voting record and relationship with the state’s Democratic machine. And Democrats are gearing up to try to defeat their longtime ally.
Support from local party leaders is crucial in New Jersey primary contests. They can aid candidates in getting “on the line” — procuring a favorable ballot position that significantly increases their chances of winning a primary.
But after Van Drew’s party switch made the race one of 2020′s most high-profile, hotly contested House races, establishment support might not be enough.
“Establishment support matters more in a race that’s not as closely watched and also not as well funded,” said Republican strategist Mike DuHaime, who advised former Gov. Chris Christie. But strong financial support, he said, may be able to "overcome the party endorsements.”