Nearly ten months after sitting in the Oval Office and pledging his “undying support” to President Donald Trump following a defection to the Republican Party, Rep. Jeff Van Drew sought to create distance between himself and the president during a debate Thursday night with his Democratic challenger Amy Kennedy.
“What it meant is I support the presidency, that I support some of the things that he’s done about a strong America, an America that really can stand up and is number one in energy production and an America that has its own supply chain,” he said.
The debate comes nearly four weeks before Election Day and three days after a Monmouth University poll showed Kennedy with a five-point lead over the party-switching freshman congressman.
Van Drew repeatedly launched attacks at policies supported by some national Democrats but opposed by Kennedy during a debate Thursday night.
“I understand her opinion, but many people disagree on the Democrats side and believe all privately sponsored health care should be removed and it should all be government, period,” Van Drew said.
Kennedy backed a public option, citing constituents’ need for stopgap insurance amid ballooning unemployment caused by the COVID-19 crisis. She does not support Medicare for All or eliminating private health insurance.
Van Drew made similar jabs during other segments, charging many “radical Democrats” opposed a strong military, hitting the mayor of Portland for his handling of protests in the city and attacking the Green New Deal, which Kennedy does not support.
The challenger said the attacks were consistent with ones Van Drew’s launched off the debate stage.
“I think that I am basically cut and paste into the Republican talking points that are happening across the country right now. I would like to be seen as an individual,” she said. “Maybe look at my policies on my page before slamming me as ‘phony, elitist, radical.’ You know, all of those things that I think anyone that went and took a look at the website would say ‘oh, that doesn’t really seem to fit that school teacher.’”
In response, the incumbent invoked his challenger’s family.
“Mrs. Kennedy, respectfully, I don’t think you’re just that homespun school teacher,” he said. “And I don’t mean that in a negative way, but you are attempting to achieve something very different, and your family’s very different.”
Kennedy’s husband is former Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-Rhode Island), but the candidate has strong roots in South Jersey, a fact she pointed out more than once.
“I am four generations South Jersey, and I am running because I love my home. I love where I live and I’m raising five kids here,” said Kennedy. “When I taught in Northfield Community School, it was my job to look around, see who was struggling and help remove those barriers so that they could be successful. That’s what I want to do for you in Congress.”
The debate stayed largely civil with few exceptions. During a segment on race and policing, Kennedy charged Van Drew opposed another round of stimulus. The incumbent responded by claiming Kennedy backed defunding the police.
“I’d like to see our state and local governments funded so that we can have both in place,” she said when asked whether police department funding should be diverted to other programs. “Unfortunately, my opponent has not supported the funding of our state and local government by our federal dollars
Van Drew voted against House Democrats’ revised Heroes Act last week, as did every other Republican in the chamber.
“First of all, respectfully, during the primary, you absolutely, and we have the quotes and we’ll give them to you in case you forgot, supported defunding the police,” Van Drew said.
The candidate expressed support for some measures backed by the Defund the Police movement during an NAACP candidate forum in June, though she steered clear of the phrase “defund the police.”
“You took that and spun it to say that I supported defunding the police,” Kennedy said. “I never even said the word defund, but you’ve used that in every ad, in mailers about me, and you have constantly used that refrain. Yet when you’re asked about your pledge of ‘undying support,’ you said ‘oh, that’s not what I meant,’ but you’re willing to put words into my mouth that I have not even said.”
Van Drew said he didn’t believe the idea was worth discussing
“I don’t think there’s merit to conversing about how we’re going to defund the police,” he said. “I think it will hurt them, and that’s where we disagree.”
The congressman also adopted some messaging from the more extreme end of the Republican Party, backing an unfounded conspiracy theory that claims COVID-19 was created in a lab and calling the nationally-recognized Monmouth poll — the gold standard of New Jersey political polling — that found nearly half of voters in the district were bothered by his defection to the Republican party “funny business.”
“We have to understand that our CDC was not allowed to go into China and really evaluate what was happening. We don’t know if it came from a wet meat market or actually came from a laboratory,” he said. “I believe it probably came from a laboratory.”
Both candidates agreed that the Affordable Care Act should not be repealed without a replacement, and both agreed on the need to lower drug prices, though Van Drew may have undercut his own party’s messaging on health care.
“Let me be very clear on this: The Affordable Care Act is not as good as it should be. It’s too expensive for many people, but we do not have anything good to replace it yet,” the former Democrat said, later adding there were “some pieces” of a plan, but not enough to satisfy him.
Those comments put him opposite Trump, whose administration is backing a suit before the U.S. Supreme Court that could strike the ACA.
The president last month issued a largely symbolic executive order calling for protections for pre-existing conditions and an end to surprise medical billing but could not say how the administration would accomplish that at a debate last month.