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Three progressives crowd narrow lane in primary vs. Van Drew

By David Wildstein, February 23 2018 10:39 am

State Sen. Jeff Van Drew had a Marco Rubio moment of his own on Wednesday night when seventeen-year-old Emily McGrath challenged him for taking campaign contributions from the National Rifle Association.

Van Drew is a right-of-center Democrat who is the favorite to flip New Jersey’s 2nd district congressional seat being vacated by twelve-term Republican Rep. Frank LoBiondo.  But in a climate that has empowered more progressive Democrats to become politically active, Van Drew’s 100% rating from the NRA and his 2009 vote against same sex marriage have suddenly attracted the attention of Democrats who view him as a Republican.

The Democratic field includes three candidates running to Van Drew’s left – not exactly a difficult task.  The problem for the left is that there is virtually no path to a victory against Van Drew with the progressive vote split three ways.  It appears, at least for now, mathematically impossible for Van Drew to lose a primary in a four-candidate field.

Despite his views, Democrats in Cape May and Cumberland counties love Van Drew.  A Republican poll from October 2011 showed Van Drew with a 73%-10% approval rating among Democrats in the 1st legislative district, which he has won by increasingly high margins for the last seventeen years.

Van Drew will likely have all the organization lines in the June primary, and already has the endorsement of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC).  With Republicans struggling to find a candidate at all in a district they’ve held with little difficulty for 24 years, most Democrats – and Republicans – view the 2nd district as a likely pickup.

The question for progressives is whether their faction of the Democratic party can sort this race out by the filing deadline and head into the primary united behind a single Van Drew opponent.

That’s where the race becomes a bit complicated.

First in the race was Tanzie Youngblood, a retired teacher from Woolwich who got in last year when it looked like LoBiondo would be the Republican candidate.  A widow and blue star mother, Youngblood became politically active in response to the emergence of Donald Trump as a national political figure.  She has raised the most money — $53,000 as of the end of last year – and is campaigning full-time.

Sean Thom is a young teacher from Millville who has been vocal in his opposition to party bosses in New Jersey.  He has the endorsement of Our Revolution New Jersey, an affiliate group of Bernie Sanders’ Our Revolution.  But the endorsement hasn’t translated into money: he’s raised less than $10,000 as of his last FEC report.

The most recent entry into the race is Will Cunningham, a former aide to U.S. Senator Cory Booker with a compelling personal story: he was homeless for a while after his mother lost her job and pit himself through Brown University.  There is no indication that Booker’s political team is engaged in Cunningham’s campaign and is not raising money for him.

All three have impressed progressives as passionate leaders and strong candidates.  While any one of them faces a tough campaign against Van Drew, the presence of a pack of progressives assures the establishment candidate a win.

Insiders say there have been no conversations about narrowing the field – and that none are expected until at least after the candidates complete the March convention season.  At least one candidate suggested that withdrawal is an option, if that would help a progressive Democrat capture the nomination, but that candidate asked not be identified so as not to torpedo that candidate’s own efforts.

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