The politics of impeachment are getting hotter for Jeff Van Drew.
The New Jersey congressman was one of just two House Democrats who voted against the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump’s dealings with Ukraine. Local progressive activists have been seething ever since, even as strategists in both parties saw his vote as shrewd given the conservative leanings of his South Jersey district.
“I am imploring you to vote in favor of impeachment,” Atlantic County Democratic Chairman Michael Suleiman said in a recent letter to Van Drew. “Voting for impeachment will undoubtedly hurt your standing with some Republican voters. However ... I find it hard to believe that voters that have known you for decades will ditch you over one vote.”
Suleiman hasn’t yet endorsed Van Drew’s reelection, and some saw his letter as a warning sign Van Drew should heed. Atlantic County accounts for 37% of the district’s voters and 41% of its registered Democrats, according to state election data. Democrats are increasingly worried that liberal anger at Van Drew could ultimately hurt other candidates next year.
“A ‘no’ vote on impeachment will suppress Democratic turnout down-ballot, which my organization cannot sustain," Suleiman wrote. “We cannot afford to have Democrats sit on their hands in a presidential year when we usually perform well.”
At least one potential candidate is openly considering a primary challenge.
“There are a lot of folks fanning flames out there,” said Patrick Murray, a pollster at Monmouth University. “But we really won’t know whether a ‘no’ vote will help or hurt.”
Van Drew has repeatedly said that he opposes impeachment because he thinks it has “torn our country apart," and that in 2020, voters, not Congress, should be the ones to decide Trump’s fate. “I don’t see anything there worthy of actually taking a president out of office," Van Drew told USA Today on Wednesday.
In a recent Stockton University survey of eight South Jersey counties, nearly half of which make up Van Drew’s district, 47% of respondents were opposed to the impeachment inquiry, compared with 46% in favor.
Van Drew’s district — which covers all of 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. Barack Obama won it twice with 53% of the vote.
“It’s not exactly clear which segment of the electorate is going to be more important to hold on to until after we get to the other side of impeachment,” Murray said.
Like Suleiman, a number of other Democratic county chairs have also withheld their support so far, according to the New Jersey Globe. That came after three moderate incumbent Democrats who billed themselves as the “Van Drew Team" ended up losing their reelection bids to the state Legislature in November, just as the Trump impeachment inquiry was heating up.
Those were the only Democratic losses in New Jersey last month.
“A majority of my members were very upset with your 'no’ vote on the impeachment inquiry," Suleiman wrote. "Candidly, it was a big distraction for my candidates and municipal leaders in Atlantic County during the tail end of the  general election cycle.”
In New Jersey, candidates with the backing of county parties reap valuable benefits, from support for get-out-the-vote efforts to, more important, a favorable column position on primary ballots.
Brigid Callahan Harrison, a professor at Montclair State University who lives in Longport, said Van Drew’s stance on impeachment has driven her to consider running against him in a primary. Now that she sees Democratic Party leaders wavering in their support, she’s more encouraged.
“I’m a political scientist. I would not undertake a fool’s errand to challenge an incumbent congressman without a strong base of support,” said Harrison, an oft-cited expert on Jersey politics. “I was heartened when party leaders indicated that they were keeping an open mind moving forward.”
In 2018, Van Drew handily beat his primary challengers. He topped Republican Seth Grossman in the general election by an eight-point margin, after Republicans withdrew their support for Grossman over racist remarks he made on the campaign trail.
Grossman has contended his remarks were not racist. “Over the years, I often made provocative statements for the purpose of provoking interest and open discussion on vitally important issues I believed were being ignored," Grossman told CNN in 2018.
In withdrawing the party’s support, Steve Stivers, then the chair of House Republicans’ campaign arm, said: “Bigotry has no place in society — let alone the U.S. House of Representatives.”
Van Drew had a little more than $900,000 in campaign cash as of Sept. 30, according to federal filings.
“This looks like it’s becoming a litmus test for the Democratic Party," Murray said. “Not just among progressives, but [establishment] Democrats as well.”