A little more than nine months after leaving the Democratic Party, Rep. Jeff Van Drew (R-Dennis) took to the stage of the Republican National Conventions on the night President Donald Trump was set to make his own pitch for re-election.
“I was elected to council as a Democrat, but as I won seats for county office, state legislature and then Congress, I noticed things were changing,” Van Drew said. “The Democratic party had become less accepting of American tradition, less believing in American exceptionalism, less supportive of traditional faith and family. This was not the party that I knew.”
Elected as to Congress in 2018 after 10 years in the State Senate in a conservative district largely on the basis of his own brand, Van Drew defected to the Republican party after his opposition to impeachment proceedings against Trump bucked support among rank-and-file Democrats in his district.
Party leaders privately warned he would have difficulty overcoming a primary challenge.
“When the radical Democrats went after president Trump with impeachment, they made another mistake,” Van Drew said. “Democratic leaders told me that I had to vote for impeachment or my life would be made difficult and I wouldn’t be allowed to run again.”
Now, he’s facing a challenge from a member of one of the country’s most storied political dynasties.
Amy Kennedy, a former teacher with a well-funded and connected campaign, thinks Van Drew’s defection was fueled more by political expedience than anything else.
“Tonight, as political payback for switching parties and pledging his undying support to Donald Trump, Jeff Van Drew took the stage at the Republican National Convention and tried to make the case as to why he made that choice. My message to the people of South Jersey is … don’t be fooled,” she said after his speech Thursday. “The truth is that Jeff has changed. He made the choice to abandon the people of South Jersey to serve his own political career instead of the families he was elected to represent.”
The congressman’s defection — specifically the image of a Democrat leaving the party over a belief that it had lost its way chasing impeachment — was a boon the president.
Shortly after the defection, Trump held a rally boosting Van Drew. Party leaders, aided by Bill Stepien, who is now Trump’s campaign manager, moved to clear the Republican primary field.
David Richter moved to run in the third district. Brian Fitzherbert dropped out of the race. Bob Patterson, a former Trump administration staffer, remained in the race but saw a crushing defeat in July’s primaries.
Thursday, Van Drew launched attacks against former Vice President Joe Biden, the Democratic presidential nominee, to return those favors.
“When the Democrats tried to order me around, I was ready, willing and able to say ‘I’ve had enough with their radical, socialist agenda. Do you really believe Joe Biden is ready, willing and — most of all — able to do the same?” he said. “As Joe says, come on, man. Joe Biden is being told what to do by the radicals running my former party, the same radicals trying to install him as their puppet president.”
To leaders of the party he left, it was a call to redouble efforts to pull Van Drew from office.
“Tonight, low-energy Jeff Van Drew showed us once again that he is a political charlatan. He pledged ‘undying support’ for Donald Trump just days after he told affluent donors he would never vote for Trump in an effort to get campaign cash,” Atlantic County Democratic Chairman Michael Suleiman said. “Tonight just reaffirmed for me that I’m going to do everything I can to make Jeff Van Drew a one-term congressman.”