Will Van Drew Shift South Jersey’s 2nd District to Democratic Column?

Mark J. Bonamo | October 5, 2018 | Elections 2018
Republican Rep. Frank LoBiondo’s retirement gives conservative state senator a good chance to add to the Democrats’ numbers in Congress

Credit: Mark J. Bonamo
State Sen. Jeff Van Drew (D-Cape May) campaigning for the 2nd Congressional District seat in Clarksboro, Gloucester County
When incumbent Rep. Frank LoBiondo decided to retire from Congress after his current term ends, a path from his South Jersey-based district opened to Washington. Amid the countrywide battle for control of Congress, the two candidates for that opening are state Sen. Jeff Van Drew (D-Cape May) and his Republican rival Seth Grossman.

The 2nd Congressional District is as deep-South Jersey as one can get, a realm where the words “hoagie” and “pork roll” reign instead of “sub” and “Taylor ham.” The largest geographically in the state, the district begins at Long Beach Island in Ocean County, then spreads west to include parts of Burlington, Camden, and Gloucester counties. It then dominates southernmost New Jersey, encompassing all of Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland, and Salem counties.

The district has been solidly Republican since LoBiondo was elected in 1994. Yet amid the Republican red trend over the last two decades, there have been flickers of Democratic blue. While its voters supported President Donald Trump by 50 percent to 46 percent in 2016, they also backed former President Barack Obama twice.

Van Drew moved a little left

Van Drew, a dentist and a state Senator since 2008, is well-known and popular in the district. Democrats are hopeful that his relatively conservative policy bent will serve him well in a district that is largely working-class, with wide swaths of rural farmland. For instance, on gun control, Van Drew has received an A rating from the National Rifle Association (NRA). The environmental advocacy group Clean Water Action recently gave him a 28 percent grade on their legislative scorecard, far lower that the average Democratic score of 71 percent. He has also voted against gay marriage and raising the minimum wage.

However, Van Drew moved somewhat leftward earlier this year, perhaps as a way to reach out to progressive Democrats. He reportedly removed his name from legislation he co-sponsored that would restore the death penalty for certain murders and would require parents to be told if their non-adult daughters get an abortion.

In a midterm election that many see as a referendum on Trump’s presidency, Grossman, 69, an Atlantic City resident and former councilman, former Atlantic County freeholder and Somers Point attorney, has unabashedly declared his support for America’s chief executive. His campaign website features a “MAGA blog,” a reference to Trump’s Make America Great Again mantra. Grossman supports the reduction of legal immigration, as well as stronger enforcement of immigration laws.

Grossman’s controversial views on diversity

Credit: Kimberly Paynter/WHYY
Seth Grossman
Grossman has courted controversy with comments made both on social media and in person. He posted disparaging and derogatory comments about African-Americans and Muslims on Facebook over a period of years. A video comment made at a GOP campaign forum in Pittsgrove in Salem County drew the most scrutiny. Grossman was captured on video saying “the whole idea of diversity is a bunch of crap and un-American.” Within weeks of the video being made public, the National Republican Campaign Committee (NRCC) withdrew its support of Grossman, calling on him “to reconsider his candidacy” and that “bigotry has no place in society — let alone the U.S. House of Representatives.”

Grossman defended his verbal and digital comments, particularly those about diversity.

“I posted thousands of comments on social media during the past ten years, and very [few] of them seemed controversial when they were made,” Grossman wrote via email in response to a series of questions about his campaign. “I think most voters agree with my belief that each individual should be judged by nothing but his or her talent, achievement and hard work when applying for jobs, scholarships and promotions, and not on how many diversity boxes he or she can check off.”

“I have no knowledge of the real reason the NRCC is not currently supporting me,” he added. “I strongly doubt my comments determined that decision, since I believe the NRCC supports other candidates who hold similar views.”

The testimony of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford, who has accused Kavanaugh of sexual assault, before the Senate Judiciary Committee last week has left the country shaken. In an interview published earlier this week in New Jersey Globe, Grossman compared these accusations against Kavanaugh to the lynchings of black and Jewish men in the 20th century.

Grossman responded to an email asking him to explain his comments, offering an addition to his statement.

“Christine Ford’s testimony against Kavanaugh also resembled that of the young women of Salem, Massachusetts which caused 19 innocent people to be found guilty and executed for witchcraft in 1692 – 1693,” Grossman said. “What is also similar is that another 180 innocent people who were also charged pled guilty to the false charges, and received only minor punishment. I believe most Americans are grateful that Judge Kavanaugh, President Trump, and hopefully enough Republican Senators did not surrender, and had the courage and wisdom to bring out the truth.”

“I’m befuddled and speechless,” Van Drew said about Grossman’s comments. “I can’t believe that somebody is living in the year 2018 and actually believes that. It’s terrible.”

Making their differences clear

When Van Drew addressed a crowd of supporters recently inside a craft brewery and coffee house in Clarksboro, located across the street from a soybean farm, he made it clear that he does not hold Grossman’s views on diversity.

“I know Grossman, and I know me, and neither of us came over on the Mayflower. Diversity is America,” said Van Drew, 65, who lives in Dennis Township. “It’s not only true when it comes to African-Americans, Hispanics, and Asians. It’s also true when it comes to Irish, Russians, and Jews.”

Grossman’s views on immigration jibe with the way many attorneys see the world: the law is the law, and what’s on the books is what matters.

“Regardless of my opinion of the current immigration law, I believe it must be strictly enforced unless or until it is repealed or changed,” Grossman said. “I believe state and local police should also enforce federal immigration laws, just as they also enforce federal immigration laws, just as they also enforce laws against robbing banks. I do not believe that ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) should the only agency in the country enforcing these federal laws.”

Polls show Van Drew ahead

Van Drew’s immigration views are centrist, in line with his personal projection as a conservative Democrat. He is neither for sanctuary cities, nor for what he calls “open borders.”

“We’re not going to ship [the approximately 11 million undocumented immigrants] back in boats. I’ve always supported legal immigration, but we have a bad immigration system. We need a legal and functional process,” Van Drew said. “ICE should be there, but I think it needs to be reworked, especially when you’re separating parents and children. There has to be a balance between compassion and order.”

Recent polls indicate that Van Drew is separating himself far from his rival. According to a Stockton University poll released on September 19, he has a 55 percent to 32 percent lead over Grossman. The GOP candidate stated that he “doesn’t believe the recently released Stockton poll is accurate,” and that voters’ perception of Van Drew as conservative will change.

The Norcross effect

A more important question could be whether progressives will rally behind Van Drew even though they definitely perceive him as conservative. This year, progressive Democratic candidates have made great gains all across the country. Some observers wonder if Van Drew is actually a member of the anticipated Democratic “blue wave,” but instead runs against the tide.

Van Drew admits that that he “doesn’t believe everything from the progressive playbook.” But as a South Jersey Democrat, he is strongly supported by Democratic power broker George Norcross III, a potent establishment force. He’s willing to work with Trump on issues that they agree on, such as the need to improve Veterans Affairs services. And he still supports the death penalty in certain “egregious” situations, although he insists that he’s always been pro-choice, saying there “was some confusion about his views in the heart of the primary.”

But Van Drew points to that primary result as an example of a unique surge of support as he makes his last campaign strides before the general election.

“My political existence is maybe not typical. I ran in the primary with three progressive candidates, and I garnered more votes than all three of them combined. It isn’t all about your label,” Van Drew said. “Some people say that this is the most flippable district in New Jersey for the Democrats, but I don’t believe that. I’ll work hard to the last minute on the last day.”