The Democratic candidates in South Jersey each had their Jeff Van Drew moment.

For Brigid Callahan Harrison, 55, of Longport, it came in December, while she was at the Army-Navy Game with her daughter. The political science professor’s cell phone blew up with the news that Van Drew, a Democratic congressman, was switching parties to become a Republican.

For Amy Kennedy, 41, who is married to former U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy and lives in Brigantine, it was the rally President Donald Trump held in January as a thank-you to Van Drew for defecting. She evoked the past of two storied families, marching in protest with Martin Luther King III in a chilly parking lot off the Wildwood boardwalk.

And for Will Cunningham, 34, it dates back to 2018, when the Vineland native first ran against Van Drew, then a Democrat. The progressive Cunningham repeatedly warned that Van Drew’s voting record “looks more like a Donald Trump wish list.” The party went with Van Drew.

Van Drew went on to capture the 2nd Congressional District seat long held by Republican Frank LoBiondo. But for Democrats the victory was short-lived. Now, the reelection bid of a Democrat-turned-Republican who has pledged his “undying support” to Trump in a swing district is one of the most closely watched House races in the country — with the added allure of a Kennedy vying to knock him off.

For Cunningham, who got 16% of the primary vote in 2018, when the political machines insisted Van Drew was the Democrat who could win the district, it feels like once again, not enough people are listening.

“A lot of folks potentially following the headlines think this is a race between two wealthy white millionaires,” said Cunningham, a Black lawyer who grew up homeless and went to Brown University and the University of Texas law school before working for the House Oversight Committee. “That is definitely not the case. I have half a dozen endorsements, some on a national level.”

Van Drew is a plum target for the victor of Tuesday’s Democratic primary: a longtime conservative former Democrat who voted against impeachment, switched parties, and embraced Trump in the Oval Office and in Wildwood. Also on the Democratic ballot are West Cape May Commissioner John Francis, founder of Planetwalk, and retired Robert Turkavage, a retired FBI agent.

Van Drew is expected to prevail in his own primary after Trump and his allies largely cleared the field for him. New Jersey’s July 7 primary is being conducted mostly by mail voting, and also includes a Republican primary to take on first-term Democratic Rep. Andy Kim.

By the time Van Drew defected, Harrison, a political analyst at Montclair State University, had already decided to challenge him in the Democratic primary, and had been urging county party chairs to support her.

Harrison takes credit for putting enough pressure on Van Drew that he switched parties, and she quickly received the endorsement of six of the eight county chairs, plus State Senate President Stephen Sweeney — a valuable feat in a state where crucial ballot position is determined by the political parties.

But she also took grief for it, and became known to some as the candidate of South Jersey power broker George E. Norcross III — who had also backed Van Drew. A Norcross-affiliated political action committee began running pro-Harrison TV ads last week.

Harrison said calling her the Norcross candidate is an unfair knock.

“To have the hard work I’ve done, as a woman who never had anything handed to me, to have my opponents characterize the success I’ve earned as being delivered to me by a man is incredibly offensive,” she said.

“Maybe that’s how it works in her world,” Harrison added of Kennedy. “Patrick delivers everything.”

Her Patrick Kennedy swipe, even as she bristles at sexism in linking her to Norcross, highlights how negative the campaign has become.

But the idea that a Kennedy might be the key to diluting Norcross’ influence in South Jersey has proved attractive to many progressives and Norcross foes who have thrown their support behind Amy Kennedy, including Gov. Phil Murphy.

Democrats Amy Kennedy, Brigid Callahan Harrison and Will Cunningham, candidates in New Jersey's 2d Congressional District, faced off in a debate in advance of the July 7 primary. The winner of the primary will face Rep. Jeff van Drew.
Stockton University Hughes Center
Democrats Amy Kennedy, Brigid Callahan Harrison and Will Cunningham, candidates in New Jersey's 2d Congressional District, faced off in a debate in advance of the July 7 primary. The winner of the primary will face Rep. Jeff van Drew.

Harrison, who wrote a textbook about democracy, doesn’t spare the Kennedy family from her criticism.

“They’re ruthless,” Harrison said. “That’s what the Kennedys are known for. They take no prisoners. It’s great training for going up against the Trump machine.”

Harrison has called out the Kennedys for their ties to Wellpath, a health-care company criticized for its work in ICE detention centers, and for Patrick Kennedy’s $500,000 funding of a PAC (since sidelined) to help his wife’s campaign.

Harrison has also criticized Amy Kennedy for ties to Atlantic City’s controversial vote-by-mail ballot wrangler, Craig Callaway. His support paved the way for Kennedy to get the nod from the Atlantic City and Atlantic County Democratic Committees, and the coveted party ballot line in Atlantic County, where 40% of the district’s registered Democrats live.

The district, which voted for Barack Obama twice and then for Trump, includes all of Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland, and Salem Counties, and parts of Camden, Gloucester, Burlington, and Ocean Counties.

Harrison said Kennedy paid Callaway close to $100,000, which Callaway denied and countered that Harrison “doesn’t say how she blew my phone up, begging me to support her.” The Kennedy campaign has declined to discuss “grassroots strategy.” Her campaign manager, Josh Roesch, accused Harrison of using “racist, dog-whistle tactics straight out of the Donald Trump playbook” by focusing on Callaway and calling into question voting by mail. Callaway himself is not named on campaign finance reports.

Kennedy, a former middle school teacher, said the attacks are seeking to “undermine my connection with Atlantic County.”

She has five children, four with Patrick Kennedy — births that were each heralded, in a nod to the Kennedy place in the country’s imagination, with short photo opportunities upon leaving the hospital on Jimmie Leeds Road.

“Four generations of my family have lived here,” said Kennedy, who served as education director for the Kennedy Forum, focusing on mental health. “I’m raising my family here. I’ve always worked here.”

Her father, Jerry Savell, was an Atlantic County freeholder who, Kennedy said, “door-knocked with all of these candidates.”

Harrison, in turn, has been criticized for what the Kennedy campaign calls a “political romance” with former Gov. Chris Christie — whom she encouraged in a 2011 newspaper opinion piece to run for president and not wait until 2016 — and for her ties to New York City, where her husband worked as a police detective and maintains an apartment, and where two of her children attended private high schools.

Harrison and Kennedy both espouse mostly mainstream Democratic positions. Kennedy is not in favor of outright legalization of marijuana, unlike her opponents. Harrison returns to improving infrastructure and public transit as a focus. Kennedy prioritizes mental health, the fragile South Jersey economy, and climate change.

At Black Lives Matter protests, Cunningham has vividly described being thrown to the ground by police as a 13-year-old, and has spoken about issues of equality and justice. A former staffer for U.S. Sen. Cory Booker (who has endorsed Harrison), Cunningham says his experience is far more relevant than that of his opponents.

His life story and views could place him in the ranks of other insurgent candidates who have won primaries against incumbents in New York and elsewhere.

But while he participated in a recent debate, he has more often found his candidacy dismissed, a Jersey freeze out he finds infuriating. On Tuesday, he accused both Kennedy and Harrison of “using their wealth, privilege, and connections to buy a seat in Congress.”

“In this nation, Black men shouldn’t have to die on camera in front of the nation to have their voices and stories heard or their substance recognized,” he said.

Cunningham has raised $165,000, including $73,000 in the most recent quarter. Kennedy has raised $1.4 million, including a $500,000 personal loan. Harrison has raised $415,600, including a $160,000 loan.

“To say that this is a two-person race between Amy Kennedy and Brigid Callahan Harrison is a lie,” Cunningham said, “plain and simple.”