In the wake of Congressman Jeff Van Drew’s surprise defection to the Republican Party in the face of an almost certain primary defeat from the Left, Democrats and Republicans are both scrambling to control the House seat.
By David Todd McCarty | Tuesday, January 7, 2020
The common refrain from most progressive Democrats in South Jersey was that they voted for Congressman Jeff Van Drew (NJ-D) with one hand holding their nose. It was a House Seat after all, that had been held by moderate Republican Frank LoBiondo for decades, and was now up for grabs. The Democrats were desperate to regain control of the House, and this seat helped them do that.
Van Drew had always been a conservative Democrat, with a record of voting against traditional democratic mainstays such as gay marriage, gun control, and a woman’s right to choose, among others. Many didn’t even consider him a Democrat, just another politician gaming the system, as he operated in the deeply Red 1st Legislative District, in an otherwise Blue state.
But once in Congress, Van Drew showed that he was not going to tow the party line and immediately refused to back Nancy Pelosi for Speaker of the House. He further bucked the party, and angered a lot of rank and file Democrats, by being only one of two Democrats in the country to vote against the Impeachment Inquiry in the House.
At home, progressive Democrats were fuming, and already planning to primary him this June. Then came the vote to impeach, which true to his word, Van Drew voted against, and his fate was sealed. His own internal polls showed that he had little chance of winning his own primary as a Democrat, so to save his political career, he simply switched sides, and pledged his undying support for President Trump.
Ironically, Van Drew had long claimed that he was against impeachment because he felt it would divide the country and ensure Trump’s re-election. Now he was pledging to support that very thing. It seems as though Van Drew was finally able to show his true colors and has already signed on to support anti-abortion legislation.
When Van Drew fled the Party, Democrats went from trying to find a candidate to primary him, to an open field of candidates who would very likely be running against him in a general election. After some initial reticence on the part of Republicans, many of whom had been calling him a socialist just months before, most have begun to fall in line, especially given that Trump has announced a rally at the Wildwood Convention Center on Jan 28, where Van Drew will speak, and Trump is expected to endorse him and welcome him as a Republican.
That is not to say he has been appointed just yet. He still has to win a Republican primary against a field of lifelong Republicans who were already in the race, and prepared to run against him as a Democrat. Despite his years of conservative voting as a State Senator in New Jersey, Van Drew’s voting record in the House was in step with the Democrats 90% of the time. He will have a hard time defending his voting record to Trump supporters and staunch Republicans, especially when they will have other options, such as David Richter, a lifelong Republican, Lawyer, and successful businessman; Brian Fitzherbert, a defense contractor; and Bob Patterson, a South Jersey businessman and most recently as an acting associate commissioner in the Trump Administration’s Social Security Administration. All three have said they will continue with their campaigns and see no reason to drop out. According to the most recent FEC filings, Van Drew leads the pack with a commanding $931k cash on hand, followed by Richter with $390k, Patterson with $77k, and Fitzherbert with $18k. Reports are that Trump’s PAC was spending at least $258,000 on ads to help Van Drew get re-elected, but it wasn’t clear if that number was included in his most recent filing.
Which brings us to the Democrats, who due to technically having an incumbent in the seat, were not really prepared to field a candidate. Despite outrage from progressives to find someone to primary Van Drew, the Party machine had been firmly behind Van Drew right up until his impeachment vote. As of this moment, only two Democratic candidates have filed with the FEC and no one has reported any fundraising numbers.
The first candidate to announce her bid following Van Drew’s vote was Brigid Callahan Harrison, a political science professor at Montclair State University. Harrison ran a strong, but unsuccessful race for Atlantic County Freeholder in the 90’s, but is most known as an author and expert on American politics, having written four books on the subject including “American Democracy Now,” which has become “a top political science textbook at the college level.”
Harrison quickly got the endorsements of six of the eight County Chairs and began raising money before anyone else got in the race. This led many progressive groups to accuse her of being just another party machine annointing, especially given the control levied by power broker George Norcross over the party in South Jersey. She has denounced any involvement with Norcross.
John Francis III, a West Cape May Commissioner, environmental philosopher, and educator was the next to announce. Francis is best known as the Planet Walker, for having taken a 17-year vow of silence beginning in 1971 after witnessing an oil spill. He refused to ride in motorized vehicles during that period and walked everywhere. Along the way, walking coast to coast, Francis earned bachelors and masters degrees in environmental science and a PhD in land resources. He is former United Nations Environment Programme Goodwill Ambassador.
Ashley Bennett, an Atlantic County Freeholder, entered the national spotlight after she defeated John Carman, a Republican freeholder after he shared a meme on social media mocking the Women’s March on Washington. It read, “Will the women’s protest end in time for them to cook dinner?” Incensed, Bennett, along with other women demanded an apology, and when she didn’t get one, she decided to run against Carman and won. She had previously been a psychiatric emergency screener at a local hospital.
Amy Kennedy, the wife of former Congressman Patrick Kennedy of Rhode Island, son of the late Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, is a former public school history teacher and most recently, the education director of The Kennedy Forum, a non-profit dedicated to improving mental health care policy. She announced her candidacy yesterday with a video.
Will Cunningham, a former staffer for Senator Cory Booker, has worked in the House of Representatives as a Chief Investigator for the late Chairman Elijah Cummings since 2016. Cunningham unsuccessfully ran for this seat against Van Drew in the primary in 2016. He is scheduled to announce his candidacy tomorrow.
Finally, former FBI agent Robert Turkavage, who ran and lost in the GOP primary in 2018 but switched parties to run as a Democrat this year, has also said he plans to enter the race, but no word on when he plans to do so.
One thing is for certain, this will be an expensive race, with a lot of players, and plenty of outside money, influence and attention. Nothing about this will be simple or straightforward and the stakes are high. Democrats seem to be split between establishment candidates and grassroots candidates and Republicans seem to be split a Trump-backed Van Drew and establishment Republican candidates.
The New Jersey Primary is less than six months away, on June 2, 2020 and most of these candidates don’t even have fully staffed campaigns or fundraising established. This will be a scramble for sure.
As of this filing, the only candidates to have officially filed with the FEC for the 2020 election are Ashley Bennett, William Cunningham, Jeff Van Drew, David Richter, Robert Patterson, Brian Fitzherbert.