An Impeachment Casualty in NJ?

By Jim Ellis

NJ-2 Freshman Rep. Jeff Van Drew

Dec. 2, 2019 — There are many moving parts to the impeachment inquiry against President Trump, and not all of the flying political shrapnel will hit the intended target. In some instances, the issue could backfire against a few Democratic members for various reasons.

An example of that involves one of the two Democrats to vote against the impeachment inquiry. Freshman Rep. Jeff Van Drew (D-Dennis Township/Cape May) is a former state legislator, serving in Trenton for 16 years before winning the 2nd District congressional seat last November. He replaced retired congressman Frank LoBiondo (R), who owned NJ-2 for a dozen terms.

Van Drew’s victory was expected because the Republicans failed to field a strong candidate, yet his 53-45 percent margin was a bit underwhelming considering he was rated a general election prohibitive favorite. Furthermore, Democrats converted four Republican districts in this state alone last year, leaving the GOP with just one congressman from New Jersey’s 12 districts.

As a result of Congressman Van Drew not believing sufficient evidence existed against Trump to warrant an impeachment inquiry, local Democrats are now beginning to stir about a potential primary challenge. Such a move might gain legs if the various county Democratic Party chairmen, powerful officials in New Jersey politics, recommend the party endorsement for a candidate other than their incumbent.

The party-endorsed candidate is given preferential placement to the point where opponents are even listed on a different part of the ballot. Therefore, losing the party endorsement, if that were to occur, is particularly damaging to an incumbent.

The political situation here intensified just three weeks ago in the 2019 elections when Rep. Van Drew’s appointed state Senate successor stood before voters who would choose a more permanent replacement. Despite the Democratic candidates within the legislative district running as “Team Van Drew”, they all lost to Republican opponents. Naturally, this does not help the Congressman should he draw a significant Democratic challenge.

Additionally, with venture capitalist David Richter, who is more than capable of self-funding a significant congressional campaign, and trade association executive Bob Patterson as Republican candidates, Van Drew is assured of facing more credible general election competition than he did in 2018. This, in a district that President Trump carried, 51-46 percent.

On the other hand, Rep. Van Drew’s early record will likely earn him strong support from the national and local business communities, which will prove a source of money and votes. This would be an important counter for Van Drew in his quest to neutralize the leftward activist community who are rallying around his developing primary competition.

Apparently testing the waters on the Democratic side is Montclair University professor Brigid Callahan Harrison, a party activist who once ran unsuccessfully, but close, in a 1993 campaign against an Atlantic County Freeholder. Another potential primary opponent is reportedly state Assembly Deputy Majority Leader Adam Taliaferro (D-Salem). State Rep. Vincent Mazzeo (D-Northfield), rumored as one more potential opponent, says he will not challenge the incumbent.

New Jersey’s 2nd District occupies all of the Garden State’s southern region, stretching from Cape May and Atlantic City across the southern peninsula to the Wilmington, DE, border area. Until 2018, the CD had been a strong performer for Republicans, which goes a long way to explaining why Rep. Van Drew opposed the impeachment inquiry.

All or parts of eight counties comprise the district, with almost three-quarters of the vote coming from Atlantic, Cumberland and Cape May counties.

Considering the Republicans scored some unexpected victories in the odd-year state legislative races and gained a net six seats, it is reasonable to believe that the southern district congressional race will again be competitive in next year’s general election. Should Rep. Van Drew actually draw a significant Democratic challenge, his vulnerability exposure in both the primary and general looks to be greater than during his open seat House campaign in the previous cycle.

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