Coming into this year, nobody dreamed this New Jersey congressional race would be among the absolute hottest in America — or that Donald Trump would make it so.
Republicans were all set to spend millions to take back the 2nd Congressional District seat that Jeff Van Drew grabbed two years as part of a Democratic near-sweep in Jersey that helped the party regain control of the House.
But when Democrats moved to impeach Trump, Van Drew wouldn’t go along and then shocked the political world by switching to the Republican Party, joining Trump at the White House and proclaiming his “undying support.”
Van Drew came away with a Wildwood rally featuring the president, a role in Trump’s re-election campaign and a prime-time speaking slot at the 2020 Republican National Convention.
But Democrats who helped him win two years ago are out for blood and vowing revenge.
His former party chose educator Amy Kennedy as their nominee. Yes, one of those Kennedys.
That’s why the South Jersey district is front and center among the most closely watched House races in the country. More than $4 million already has been spent by outside groups, most on attack ads from party committees and super political action committees linked to House leaders, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
No matter how much the airwaves are filled up, no matter how pieces of mail reach voters, experts said the race will boil down to one thing: As Trump goes, so will Van Drew.
“These national headwinds and Trump himself are just going to have a strong influence over this race,” said John Froonjian, executive director of the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Stockton University, which sponsored a debate Thursday between the two major-party nominees..
“If it is a wave election and things really start rolling with the Democrats, Amy Kennedy has a good shot,” Froonjian said. “If, however, Trump prevails in the 2nd District, I can’t imagine that Van Drew wouldn’t also prevail.”
So far, Joe Biden has an edge over Trump in the district, which has supported the winner of the White House in six of the last seven presidential elections.
And Van Drew trailed Kennedy by at least 6 percentage points in a recent Monmouth University Poll. He is the only New Jersey House member not favored to win re-election by both the Cook Political Report and Inside Elections, which track congressional races.
Van Drew said that the candidate, not the political party, is what matters.
“People voted for me because I’m Jeff Van Drew,” he said during the debate at Stockton University’s Atlantic City campus. “People know who I am. They know what I stand for. They will vote for or against me on that basis.”
Kennedy — married to former Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., the son of the late U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy and nephew of the late President John F. Kennedy — would be the only member of the iconic Democratic family serving in Congress if she wins.
“It’s a brand, just like Trump is a brand,” said Ben Dworkin, director of Rowan University’s Institute for Public Policy and Citizenship. “If her last name was Smith and not Kennedy, it would be more of an uphill battle.”
Kennedy has emphasized her own long-standing ties to South Jersey.
“I was raised in this county, in this district,” Kennedy said during the debate. “My family’s lived here for four generations. I taught public school. I am raising my own five kids here.”
“I don’t think you’re just that homespun schoolteacher,” Van Drew later responded. “Your family’s very different.”
Supporting Kennedy are labor organizations who backed Van Drew in 2018, including the New Jersey Education Association and state AFL-CIO, even as the incumbent scored 100% on its 2019 scorecard.
In addition, several interest groups, including the Sierra Club and End Citizens United, that initially endorsed Van Drew for re-election switched sides when he switched parties.
“Jeff Van Drew is a political opportunist who betrayed South Jersey families to advance his own ambitions,” End Citizens United spokesman Bawadden Sayed said. “Now, he’s joined at the hip with President Trump, the most corrupt president of all time.”
Republicans are using their national playbook and trying to tie Kennedy to her party’s progressive wing despite her opposition to the Green New Deal, which calls for 100% clean energy by 2030, and Medicare for All, which would replace private health insurance with a single-payer, government-run plan.
And when asked about “defunding the police,” Kennedy said it was worth discussing “reallocating funds to make healthy communities.” That’s the argument being made by U.S. Sens. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Kamala Harris, D-Calif., the Democratic vice-presidential nominee, who have defined the term as investing more money in social programs rather than only increasing police budgets to respond to problems.
Van Drew told Kennedy that he believed that there shouldn’t be a discussion.
“I do not think there is merit to conversing about how we would defund our police,” Van Drew said in the most heated confrontation of the debate. “I think it will hurt them, and that’s where we disagree.”
Both sides recently swapped ads over that issue.
Van Drew used his Republican convention speech to accuse his old party of pursuing a “radical socialist agenda.”
During the debate, he repeated the president’s contentions that restricting flights from China was a quick and decisive response to the coronavirus, and that New Jersey’s decision to automatically mail ballots to registered voters, a policy the Trump campaign is challenging in court, would lead to voter fraud.
But Van Drew also acknowledged during the debate that climate change was real and backed the state and local stimulus aid that Trump has fought against.
He has voted with the president just 23% of the time, less than any other House Republican, according to Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight. While most of Van Drew’s anti-Trump votes came as a Democrat, he also has broken with his new party and Trump on issues such as providing more money for the U.S. Postal Service.
“When it comes to bread and butter issues important to the district, he really has sounded like the old Jeff Van Drew, the reasonable moderate,” Froonjian said. “When he talks about the president and national trends, he sounds very much like a Trumpist.”
Here’s where the two candidates stand on the issues, according to Project Vote Smart:
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Jonathan D. Salant may be reached at [email protected].