Atlantic County Freeholder Ashley Bennett formally announced her bid for Rep. Jeff Van Drew’s seat Friday.
“I’m deeply disappointed because when voters sent a Democrat to Congress, they did so with the expectation that he would stand up with his principles — our principles — and not play the line and get cozy with the president,” she said. “South Jersey doesn’t need a yes man for the president in Congress. We need someone who is willing to hold him accountable.”
Van Drew was elected as a Democrat but defected to the Republican party on Thursday, a move that preceded by the congressman’s loss of favor among the district’s Democrats over his opposition to impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump.
Two other Democrats, political science professor Brigid Harrison and West Cape May Commissioner John Francis III, have announced their campaigns for the seat, though Francis will not formally announce his bid until January.
Former public school teacher and wife of ex-Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy (D-Rhode Island) Amy Kennedy has launched an exploratory committee for the Democratic nod.
Harrison is the race’s early frontrunner. Six of the second district’s eight Democratic county chairs and Senate President Steve Sweeney endorsed her on Wednesday.
Michael Suleiman, who is the Democratic chairman of Bennett’s home county, and Ocean County Democratic Chairman Wyatt Earp have not yet backed a candidate.
Early party endorsements are a common method to clear a path for establishment-backed candidates, and Bennett said she saw the move coming.
“I mean, I expected it, and that has never been my focus on the endorsements of leaders. It was the endorsements of the people that matter more. I’m here for the voters, and I want to hear what they have to say,” Bennett told a crowd of roughly 30 people. “I’ve beaten insurmountable obstacles already.”
Two elected other elected officials, Atlantic County Freeholder Caren Fitzpatrick and Galloway Councilman Frank Santo, attended Bennett’s launch.
The freeholder said her bid was fueled by the same issue that pushed Democratic voters away from Van Drew.
“I’ve considered for a while, long before the vote against the inquiry,” she said. “I thought about it and where I could best use my skills to make change, and then after this last vote Wednesday, this was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I knew that I couldn’t wait any longer.”
Van Drew was one of two Democrats to vote against a resolution establishing procedures for the public portion of the since-concluded impeachment inquiry against Trump.
He was one of two Democrats to vote against both articles of impeachment the House passed on Wednesday, though the congressman’s staff was told he intended to switch parties as early as Saturday.
A third Democratic congressman, Rep. Jared Golden (D-Maine) voted against the article that accused Trump of obstructing congressional probes but backed the one charging the president with abusing the power of his office.
While Trump and Republicans with ties to the White House are making efforts to clear the field for Van Drew, the three GOP candidates that announced their bids before news of his party switch broke remain in the race.
He’ll face David Richter, former Trump aide Robert Patterson and former Atlantic County Young Republicans chairman Brian Fitzherbert in the primary.
Van Drew likely would have faced primary challengers had he not defected, and Bennett suggested she may have been one of them.
“I’m not running just because Jeff Van Drew switched parties. I’m not running because of that. The quality of a candidate is not based on party affiliation or the amount of endorsements secured,” she said. “Dedication to service, the ability to caring in the interests of our constituency and the courage of conviction are the real measure of a member of congress, and I’m afraid Jeff Van Drew just doesn’t understand.”