Jeff Van Drew: Trump gets valuable ally in blue New Jersey

Charles Stile

Blue New Jersey just yielded President Donald J. Trump an invaluable public relations gift for Christmas: a turncoat Democratic congressman.

South Jersey Rep. Jeff Van Drew is expected to end the nearly two-decade pretense of being a Democrat and join Trump's Republican Party. Van Drew has reportedly been in talks with Trump and his staff for more than a week. 

Van Drew, who was supported by the Democratic Party with millions in donations and political capital in his climb from Cape May County freeholder to state legislator and on to Congress, could announce his defection as early as Tuesday. That's just fine with Trump, who is expected to bestow his blessing on the former dentist from Dennis Township. A Rose Garden ceremony has been discussed, Fox News says.

Van Drew is one of two freshman Democrats who have publicly vowed not to vote for the two articles of impeachment against Trump. That gives his turncoat status an added symbolic weight: Not only is he breaking ranks with "Crazy Nancy" and her impeachment obsession, as Trump described House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, but he's breaking ranks from so-called radical Democrats.

As a practical matter, the defection won't derail the House's approval of impeachment along party lines — Pelosi has more than enough Democrats for approval even if some swing-district representatives get cold feet.

Still, this is a holiday gift basket for Trump. In the ballot boxes and in the polls, New Jersey is supposed to be hostile territory for Trump, despite his occasional weekends at his golf resort in Bedminster.

Here, in Jersey, Trump finds the poster child he's been dreaming of: a freshman Democrat who surfed to Congress along the blue wave, now bolting before he finishes his first term.

Trump can point to his latest neophyte, Van Drew, as an example of a sensible "moderate" who could no longer tolerate the Democratic Party's impeachment obsession. The drumbeat calling for Trump's removal drowned out Van Drew's warnings of a voter backlash.

Political survival on the line

Sen. Jeff Van Drew speaks during a special ceremony celebrating Columbus Day at Vineland City Hall on Monday, October 14, 2019.

In reality, political survival is forcing Van Drew to abandon the party. There is a good chance that his opposition to impeachment might have doomed his chances of winning the Democratic nomination for reelection next year.

One poll found that 71 percent of likely Democratic voters in Van Drew's district — which sprawls north from Cape May and into Cumberland and Atlantic counties — would be less likely to support his reelection if he opposed impeachment. And he was going to face a primary. On Monday, Brigid Harrison, a Montclair State University political scientist, launched her campaign for the 2nd District.

Van Drew might have better chances as a Republican. Trump carried the district by four points in 2016, and in November a slate of conservative Republicans pulled off a stunning upset over three Democrats in a state legislative district that overlaps Van Drew's congressional district. One of them, Republican Michael Testa of Vineland, defeated the favored Democratic machine candidate for the state Senate.

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Testa won by aligning himself with Trump at the end of the race. A taped "robocall" of the president endorsing Testa was pumped into voters' households in the final week of the race. Trump's nod to name Testa as state co-chairman for the 2020 campaign didn't hurt, either.

So it made sense that Van Drew cast his lot with Trump, even though a blessing from Trump has the staying power of a two-day weather front. 

Here is another benefit for Trump and his New Jersey Republican allies struggling to gain traction in a state where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by close to one million voters:

Van Drew's departure creates yet another round of disarray within the fractured New Jersey Democratic Party, which is locked in a soul-defining power struggle for its future.

On the surface, New Jersey Democrats from across the spectrum condemned Van Drew as a traitor who put his own political survival ahead of the party and his nation. Gov. Phil Murphy cast him as craven and said Van Drew was "cute instead of courageous."

"This is a guy who is trying to find a path to getting reelected to Congress, not a path to doing the right thing,'' Murphy said on MSNBC.

State Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester, who is locked in a bitter feud with Murphy, said roughly the same thing.

"He's not switching parties because of the politics of the Democratic Party,'' Sweeney said. "He's switching parties because of his own self-preservation. He's afraid of losing the race."

Seething differences on the Democratic side

NJ Sen. Jeff Van Drew enters his election night headquarters following a victory Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018 at The Claridge Hotel in Atlantic City, N.J.

It didn't take long before the seething differences broke through the facade of unity. 

A group of insurgent, grassroots Democrats — who are aligned with Murphy — pointed the finger of blame at the South Jersey Democratic Party machine and its creator and caretaker, George E. Norcross III. Van Drew, they contend, is just another ideologically bereft byproduct of the machine, groomed by Norcross. Van Drew is another Mar-a-Lago Democrat. Norcross is, after all, a member of Trump's Florida resort club.

"This is a direct result of the South Jersey Democratic machine's power — a machine that engineered Van Drew's rise knowing his values were out of step with the party,'' said Sue Altman, state director of the New Jersey Working Families Alliance, an advocacy group aligned with Murphy.

"The Democratic boss and Mar-a-Lago member George Norcross groomed Van Drew from Township Committee to freeholder to state Senate to Congress ... Norcross was responsible for Van Drew's ascent, and we should blame him for Van Drew's defection to Trump as well."

Others in Murphy's camp took up the anti-Norcross charge, including state Democratic Party Chairman John Currie. Meanwhile, Sweeney brushed aside Altman as a troublemaker, financed by "New Direction New Jersey,'' a Murphy-backed campaign committee.

He also said Altman's attack was rife with hypocrisy, given that the entire Democratic establishment, including Murphy, the New Jersey Education Association and a slew of public employee unions, all endorsed Van Drew's election last year. Everybody was invested.

"They all knew Van Drew could win that district. That was what it was about: winning that district so Nancy Pelosi could become speaker,'' Sweeney said. He added that Altman & Co.'s claim that a more progressive candidate could succeed Van Drew is fantasy. It has historically been a conservative district of farmers, commercial fisheries and owners of seasonal tourist shops and restaurants.

"The progressives can't win that district, and anyone who knows anything about politics knows that," Sweeney said.

But anybody watching politics suddenly knows that a Democrat from that historically conservative district is about to join Trump. In doing so, Van Drew sews more dissension in the Democratic Party's New Jersey ranks.

Those are small gifts in the grand scheme of things, but on the brink of becoming the fourth president to face impeachment, Trump will gladly take any consolation prizes he can get.

Charlie Stile is New Jersey’s preeminent political columnist. For unlimited access to his unique insights into New Jersey’s political power structure and his powerful watchdog work, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

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