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South Jersey Congressman Jeff Van Drew is hardly alone among Democrats in calling for caution on impeachment. Rep. Brenda Lawrence, a Democrat from the electorally important state of Michigan, said last week she doesn’t “see the value of kicking” Trump out of office. Along with many others, veteran Democratic pollster Doug Schoen has argued impeachment will only allow Trump to claim exoneration when the Senate does not convict and remove him from office. Indeed, the preponderance of polling continues to suggest that the nation is nearly evenly divided on impeachment, with no evidence of an emerging consensus, even after two weeks of highly charged and televised public hearings.
Our representatives take their cues from their constituents; at least that’s how it’s supposed to work. That’s why it’s puzzling that Van Drew is coming under attack by Montclair professor Brigid Harrison at the exact time his cautious approach is looking more prescient by the day. Van Drew has enjoyed a highly successful career of representing a part of the state that frequently votes Republican. His constituents know they can count on him not to throw bombs from either side of the partisan divide—he has staked his reputation on reaching across the aisle, as he quite literally did to greet President Trump at this year’s State of the Union address.
We don’t need to guess where Van Drew’s constituents stand on impeachment— the now-infamous Stockton poll taken just before the recent state Senate race told us that more voters in his old state legislative district oppose the current inquiry than support it. In the neighboring district, which Van Drew also represents in Congress, Stockton found a slight majority of 51 percent in support of the probe. The areas of Van Drew’s district not included in these two polls are primarily in southern Ocean County and Salem County—areas where we know President Trump has been particularly popular. On a district-wide basis, it is obvious to me that Van Drew’s impeachment position is not out-of-step with his constituents.
That’s not all Harrison got wrong about Van Drew. She claims Van Drew has a 100 percent rating from the NRA, even though he voted for H.R. 8, the bipartisan bill to require universal background checks for firearms purchasers, and for the bill to close the loophole that allowed the Charleston church shooter to purchase a gun and kill nine worshipers. She also claims other House freshmen from New Jersey, including Mike Sherrill, may have been assigned to better committees because they didn’t “alienate House leadership” by voting against Nancy Pelosi’s election as Speaker of the House. Yet just like Van Drew, Sherrill also kept her campaign promise to oppose Pelosi’s election.
While Harrison says this means Van Drew alone started his congressional career on “shaky ground,” I can’t imagine a shakier way to begin a career than by breaking a campaign promise in your very first vote. The reality is their House colleagues understood that both Van Drew and Sherrill needed to keep their word. Speaker Pelosi’s memorable response to the original promises was, “just win, baby, win.” Where Harrison sees a Van Drew as a pariah, his pragmatic colleagues understand the need to reconcile the dramatic differences of views from district to district in order to maintain a working majority. Far from being alone, Van Drew brought the Natural Resources Committee of the nation’s House of Representatives to Cape May to hear how local fishermen are impacted by offshore wind siting.
Were Harrison or any other candidate to run against the popular Van Drew in a primary, Democrats in Atlantic and Cumberland counties—who are not accustomed to rough primaries– would do well to remember ghosts of another Congressional primary election past that caused widespread political destruction in their own counties: the Bill Gormley-Frank LoBiondo split of the GOP in 1994. Like then, there was a certainty of perceived conventional wisdom—largely from outside of the district and not matched by the reality on the ground– that the more mainstream Gormley would defeat LoBiondo, whose views were seen as more extreme. As would be expected in a race for their political lives, both candidates mounted aggressive campaigns and, to maximize their support, full lines of rival candidates from the top of the ballot to the bottom, assuring winner-takes-all carnage from one line or the other. Once the dust settled, LoBiondo would begin his long congressional career by defeating Gormley in what the Atlantic City Press described as a “blowout landslide,” which “dimmed” Gormley’s statewide star and resulted in serious collateral damage to the party that included: a change in control of Egg Harbor Township, the loss of many longtime local incumbents in Lower Township, North Wildwood, Hammonton among others, a county freeholder, and control of at least one party county committee and the defeat of a county chairman standing for reelection.
The freeholder seat lost by the GOP that year was won by a longshot candidate whose campaign I managed. The split had caused an unintended ripple effect, creating an opening that helped propel him to higher office once and for all. His name was Jeff Van Drew.
If the goal of South Jersey Democrats is to retain the seat and keep it away from the GOP, they will need to weigh the serious risk of uncontrollable damage for years to come versus accepting that their congressman has a strong independent streak, and his offense is representing the views of his constituents by reaching across the aisle in a time of polarization. When all is said and done, Congressman Van Drew has voted with his colleagues in Congress on most issues in the current session. His approach of representing the views of all constituents regardless of party has always been enough within the district. If it is now not sufficient in some progressive salons that are demanding polarization 100 percent of the time, with no common ground to be found and instead that the district’s politics must be driven further apart, should it matter?
Micah Rasmussen is the director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University.