One is enduring only the third impeachment trial in U.S. history, a proceeding rocked Sunday by new revelations from a one-time ally. The other is still trying to find his footing in a new party. Both face challenging reelections in November.
On Sunday, Trump saw one of his key impeachment defenses undermined when the New York Times reported that his former national security adviser, John Bolton, wrote in an unpublished manuscript that Trump directly tied the withholding of military aid for Ukraine to whether the country aided in investigations of his political rivals. That increased the political pressure on Republicans to have Bolton testify in what has so far been a speedy impeachment trial free of witnesses or new evidence.
Just two days before that, the strength of Van Drew’s newfound loyalty to the president was called into question with the emergence of a voicemail he left for a voter. “I haven’t voted for him, I didn’t support him, I will not vote for him," Van Drew said of Trump in the Nov. 30 message, just three weeks before he defected to the GOP and pledged the president his “undying support."
Meanwhile, on Monday, Wildwood was jumping. A line of more than 1,500 people stretched for several blocks from the doors of the town’s convention center, hoping to guarantee themselves a seat. It was a jovial crowd, a sort of MAGA tailgate.
All of it could make for an unpredictable Tuesday down the Shore. While Van Drew was still scheduled to ride with Trump on Air Force One to Wildwood and speak at the event, it remains to be seen if a president known for demanding fierce loyalty from Republicans will voice full-throated support for him when the moment arrives.
“It will be an attempt for [Van Drew] to demonstrate to his new colleagues that he is respected by the president and has the ability to deliver him to their district for a major event," said John Farmer, director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University. “I see it primarily as an attempt to shore up Van Drew’s status as a Republican."
In many ways, personal support for Trump has become the new dividing line in Washington, more than any specific policy issue — a reality hammered home during the ongoing impeachment trial. Republicans who have vocally criticized the president’s behavior have been drummed out of the party, despite conservative voting records. Van Drew, one of the only Democrats to oppose impeachment, saw that stance effectively end his political future in his longtime party.
Similarly, Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan had a voting record that won praise from top conservative groups in Washington. But his days in the GOP were numbered after he called for impeaching Trump in May. He left the party a few months later and is now an independent.
In Van Drew’s case, opposition to impeachment overwhelmed everything else, and his support among Democrats plummeted. Because of impeachment, and more broadly because of his stance on Trump, he is now a Republican.
And since Van Drew’s party switch in December, he’s had to contend with criticism from both sides. Democrats are furious at the betrayal, while local Republicans have been skeptical of his conservative bona fides. He 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.
But even though Van Drew’s path to reelection remained precarious, he received a welcome sign of the strength of Trump’s support in the Republican Party on Monday. David Richter, a millionaire construction executive who was seen as the GOP front-runner in the district before Van Drew switched parties, said he would switch districts and run against freshman Democrat Andy Kim instead. Another Republican challenger, Brian Fitzherbert, dropped out of the race Friday.
“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. “I have endorsed Jeff Van Drew and will support his re-election campaign."
Wildwood was awakening from its usual winter slumber Monday afternoon. Pubs were organizing rally watch parties. RV’s with Trump signs were parked at the Walmart in nearby Rio Grande, and Trump rally regulars were camped out near the Convention Center as early as Sunday.
“We’ve been nonstop,” said Nancy DelPizzo of Toms River, N.J., who was selling Trump merchandise out of an RV in the Walmart lot.
Trump merchandise stands popped up, transforming summer beachwear shops into political souvenir shops, and Trump banners were hung from motel decks.
People took video selfies with a helicopter making practice landings near Wildwood High School behind them, and protesters held sign-making workshops. Throngs of counter-protesters are expected Tuesday, as Trump’s appearance has unified some 30 different anti-Trump groups and four Democratic candidates running in the primary to face Van Drew. One event will feature Martin Luther King III, eldest son of the late civil rights leader.
This will be the first time a sitting president has campaigned in New Jersey’s 2nd Congressional District since President George H.W. Bush visited Vineland in October 1992. In the fall of 1984, President Ronald Reagan stopped in Hammonton during his reelection travels. And President Theodore Roosevelt made brief “whistle stop” remarks there.
Police have cautioned about big crowds and long lines. The ticketed rally allows admission on a first-come, first-served basis.