Van Drew appears to lead Kennedy in heated South Jersey race

After being elected as a Democrat, Van Drew jumped to GOP. Kennedy says vote counts will last beyond Tuesday
Credit: (Edward Lea/The Press of Atlantic City via AP, Pool)
Oct. 8, 2020: Incumbent Republican Rep. Jeff Van Drew debated Democratic challenger Amy Kennedy at the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Stockton University.

U.S. Rep.  Jeff Van Drew, who switched to the Republican Party one year after he was elected as a Democrat, appeared to be leading challenger Amy Kennedy as he sought to hold onto his House seat in the closely watched 2nd Congressional District race.

With a 10,000 vote advantage, Van Drew sounded confident in a victory just before 11 p.m., but Kennedy did not concede and the race had yet to be called as of midnight with vote counting ended for the night.

While her supporters gathered in an Atlantic City ballroom Tuesday night to watch the election results, Kennedy herself was quarantined after coming into contact with someone who had tested positive for the COVID-19 virus.

Kennedy said her campaign was about making sure “every voice is heard” in South Jersey.

“As expected it looks as if the process (of counting votes) will continue beyond tonight,” Kennedy told NJ Spotlight News.

“I’m incredibly proud of the campaign we ran.” Kennedy said while also thanking her staff, volunteers and other supporters.

Click here for live 2nd Congressional District election results.

Click here for all elections results.

Watch live election night coverage.  

A poll from Monmouth University last month had Kennedy at 49% to Van Drew’s 44% — just outside the poll’s margin of error. Stockton University’s recent survey put the Democrat just one percentage point ahead of Van Drew — a statistical dead heat.

Forecasters at Cook Political Report had considered the district a toss-up; Inside Elections shifted the race into “tilt Democratic” territory shortly before the election.

In 2018, Van Drew was elected as a Democrat in the so-called blue wave that flipped four New Jersey congressional districts from red to blue. But just one year later, he defected to the Republican Party after voting against impeaching President Donald Trump.

Van Drew’s switch

“You have my undying support,” Van Drew told Trump in an Oval Office meeting in December. Van Drew later walked back that statement to say he meant to express support for the office of the president but that he does not always agree with Trump’s policies.

Van Drew, a former state lawmaker, has said that he is independent. Asked about a Monmouth University poll that showed half of the district’s voters were bothered by his defection, he said, “I don’t buy it; our internal polling doesn’t show that at all.”

Despite the district’s historic Republican tilt, the president’s unpopularity in New Jersey may have had an impact on Van Drew, even though a Stockton poll found voters in the 2nd District “feel more positive about Trump than do voters in the rest of New Jersey, where there are strong negative feelings about the president.”

Kennedy, a former public schoolteacher and mental health advocate, won the Democratic primary bolstered by support from progressive groups. But her politics are less aligned with the party’s progressive wing than with moderates. Kennedy supports a public option for health care but isn’t a proponent of “Medicare for All.”

One point of contention as Election Day drew near was the Van Drew campaign’s claim that Kennedy supports defunding the police, based on her comments during an NAACP forum that police funding “merits conversation.” Kennedy has said she does not support police defunding. In an Oct. 8 debate between the two, she underlined that position, stating, “I have been cut and pasted into the Republican talking points … “You took that and spun it,” she said to Van Drew. “You’ve used that in every mailing.”

Kennedy is a South Jersey native married to Patrick Kennedy, a former congressman from Rhode Island and son of the late Sen. Ted Kennedy. While she comes from a family entrenched in local politics, Kennedy herself has never held office.

She says Van Drew’s party switch motivated her to run against him.

The 2nd District is the state’s largest geographically; it takes in all Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland, and Salem counties, and parts of Burlington, Camden, Gloucester, and Ocean counties. It has nearly 20,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans, but unaffiliated voters exceed both parties’ totals.