Democrats look to target Van Drew over challenge to Biden victory

South Jersey lawmaker could face vigorous opposition in his bid for reelection to Congress, despite strong GOP support
Credit: (AP Photo/Mel Evans)
Rep. Jeff Van Drew with President Trump at a January 2020 rally in Wildwood

The inauguration of Democrat Joe Biden as the 46th president of the United States closes the contentious 2020 presidential election. But New Jersey Rep. Jeff Van Drew’s vote against certifying Biden’s win following the insurrection spurred by Donald Trump could follow him into the next congressional election.

Van Drew, who represents New Jersey’s 2nd Congressional District, was the only New Jersey representative to back objections to certifying Electoral College votes on Jan. 6 and 7, when Congress affirmed Biden’s win, with 306 Electoral College votes. Another 120 House Republicans and seven senators from across the country also tried to prevent the certification.

New Jersey’s other Republican representative, Chris Smith of the 4th Congressional District, voted to certify the results. “Nullifying the electors of any state requires proof that electors were not ‘lawfully certified’ according to state laws,” he said.

South Jersey Democrats are hoping to capitalize on Van Drew’s vote, which came just hours after a mob rioted at the U.S. Capitol trying to stop the certification. Many were there not only to interrupt that vote but reportedly to capture or harm legislators, as well as Vice President Mike Pence.

Baseless contentions about voter fraud from Trump and other Republicans are what drove the zealots to act, Democrats say, and Van Drew was irresponsible by continuing to promote the idea after seeing how it has radicalized so many of the outgoing president’s supporters.

But political observers note that Van Drew won a convincing reelection over Amy Kennedy last year despite Democrats’ ire at his voting against impeaching Trump the first time and then switching to the Republican Party.

Van Drew also voted against the second impeachment last week.

‘Undying loyalty’ to Trump

“I guarantee there will be some kind of vigorous challenge from Democrats,” said Ben Dworkin, founding director of the Rowan Institute for Public Policy and Citizenship. “It’s unclear to me whether he will be hurt by it … We don’t know in that district if it is going to make that much difference. He switched parties and pledged his undying loyalty to Donald Trump. If that didn’t move voters, then I don’t know what will.”

But Democrats are going to try.

“There is definitely a lot of anger at Van Drew and his vote,” said Kate Delany, president of South Jersey Progressive Democrats. “There was a lot of energy around Amy Kennedy’s race and I think those folks are using this as just a further indication that we need to get a good Dem in there in CD2. I’m not sure if there are moderate Republicans that are rethinking their commitment to him, but I sure hope so.”

Van Drew did not respond to requests for comment.

Michael Suleiman, Atlantic County Democratic chairman, said he has heard from the occasional Republican fed up after the Capitol riot and over Trump’s comments riling up the crowd before the takeover. He said he now plans to try to keep the momentum going through this year’s gubernatorial and legislative races and into the 2022 midterms.

“We have to capitalize on the interest by folks who really want to get involved in the party and get involved with democracy and really use that to our advantage to get worker bees on the ground,” he said. In both the Legislature and his first 10 1/2 months in Congress as a Democrat, Van Drew “did some good things” before switching parties, Suleiman added.

“I think a lot of people look at it like, ‘Who is this guy?’” he said. “How do you go from a Democrat endorsing (Sen. Cory) Booker to a Republican endorsing Trump for president?”

Loss of financial backing seen

Micah Rasmussen, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University, said Van Drew could at least be facing a financial loss for his campaign effort.

Rasmussen, who once worked as an aide to Van Drew, took note of recent announcements by such corporations as AT&T and Walmart that their political committees would not give money to Republicans who voted against certifying the results, and said public records show the congressman got almost $85,000 from those PACs toward the last election cycle.

That’s just a fraction of the $4.3 million Van Drew raised toward the 2020 election. But Rasmussen tweeted that “it can be read that many of the nation’s largest corporations have expressed their loss of confidence” in Van Drew.

But as to his ability to win in the future, Rasmussen said, “I’m not sure you can completely count Van Drew out yet.”

He said Van Drew will be counting on support from the GOP strongholds of Cape May, Salem and southern Ocean counties, but it’s unclear if they will turn out in the same large numbers without Trump on the ticket. At the same time, “we are likely to see a sizable backlash against his decertification vote in Atlantic and Cumberland counties,” which could make the race more competitive, Rasmussen said. And if newly redrawn congressional districts wind up making the 2nd District bluer, Van Drew could be in real trouble.

Dworkin, though, said it’s more likely that Democrats will try to shore up Rep. Andy Kim in the neighboring 3rd Congressional District. Although Kim won in November by a larger margin than Van Drew — 8 percentage points or 33,000 votes — Kim may not fare as well when topping the ticket. And the president’s party typically loses seats in the midterm elections.

He also said that a lot will happen between now and the 2022 election. That, and the campaigns the candidates run, will play a part in determining whether voters focus more on Van Drew’s certification vote or Biden’s policies.

Lingering anger

Still, the 2018 midterms were a clear repudiation of Trump, allowing angry Democrats in New Jersey to flip four red seats, including the 2nd District, which Van Drew then returned to Republican hands when he switched parties in December 2019.

“I do think moderates of both parties are repulsed by the undermining of our democracy that we’ve just witnessed, and that Van Drew actively participated in,” Rasmussen said.

In recent meeting with NJ Spotlight News, Sen. President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) channeled some of the anger in speaking about his former state Senate colleague.

“He should be ashamed of himself, to do what he’s done, to try to overturn elections, to go along with a Texas lawsuit challenging the results in battleground states,” Sweeney said. “This is about Jeff staying in office, doing and saying anything that’s necessary to stay in office … He sold his soul, so he is the biggest disappointment. I certainly hope we get a candidate that beats him next time around.”

Both Kennedy and Montclair State University professor Brigid Harrison, who lost to Kennedy in the primary, could run again. Suleiman said others may be interested and it is important for the party to “identify someone early” to counteract any advantage Van Drew has.

Suleiman acknowledged that Van Drew, who won reelection by more than 21,000 votes, or almost 6 percentage points, could be hard to beat despite his opposition to certifying Biden’s victory.

“It should hurt, yes, but I could see Jeff changing positions or changing tunes to get himself re-elected,” Suleiman said. “The guy’s a good politician. I think the intestinal fortitude leaves much to be desired, but the guy’s a good politician, I have to admit it.”

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