Van Drew projected the winner over Kennedy in 2nd Congressional District

The Democrat conceded Friday night
Credit: (Edward Lea Staff Photographer / Press of Atlantic City, Pool)
Oct. 8, 2020: Rep. Jeff Van Drew (R-2) during a debate with Democratic challenger Amy Kennedy at Stockton University in Atlantic City.

U.S. Rep.  Jeff Van Drew, who switched to the Republican Party rather than vote to impeach President Donald Trump, appears to have won reelection to his 2nd District House seat, the last of the state’s dozen to be decided.

The Associated Press called the race Friday afternoon, as Van Drew had a 15,000-vote, or 5-point, lead over Democrat Amy Kennedy, with 80% of the expected vote counted.

Kennedy conceded Friday night, issuing a statement in which she said she had congratulated Van Drew.

“I believe that South Jersey can build back better,” she said, quoting former Vice President Joe Biden’s presidential campaign slogan. “While this race is over, the work that we started back in January was never about me. It was always about the people of South Jersey.”

Dan Conston, president of the Congressional Leadership Fund, which spent more than $2 million in supporting Van Drew, issued a statement congratulating him.

“Voters know Jeff Van Drew will never let blind partisanship run amok over Washington and will always give his undying loyalty to the people of New Jersey,” he said.

After the longtime Democratic state lawmaker announced his party switch last December, Van Drew appeared with Trump in the Oval Office and famously stated, “You have my undying support.” He later walked back that statement, saying he meant to express support for the office of the president but that he does not always agree with Trump’s policies.

The Kennedy campaign

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

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To win, Democrats said she needed a big victory margin in Atlantic County, which makes up the lion’s share of the sprawling South Jersey district. That didn’t happen. With 85% of the county’s expected vote counted, Kennedy was leading by fewer than 5,000. Some Democrats blamed Craig Callaway, a convicted felon who said he pays people to collect and return ballots, for influencing the vote in Atlantic County.

The race had been considered a close one. A recent Stockton University survey had Kennedy 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 Day.

Van Drew’s switch

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 impeachment.

Van Drew, a former state lawmaker, has said that he is independent. He was among the most conservative Democrats during his 16 years in the state Legislature. Asked about a Monmouth University poll that showed half of 2nd  District 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.”

The 2nd District

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.