What The Van Drew Switch Means

By Jim Ellis

NJ-2 Freshman Rep. Jeff Van Drew

Dec. 18, 2019 — We can expect an official announcement coming this week that freshman New Jersey Rep. Jeff Van Drew (D-Dennis Township) will become a Republican. Seeing most of his staff resign over this past weekend is the clearest indication that the speculation surrounding the congressman’s impending political move will in fact occur.

What does Van Drew’s switch mean for the House outlook in 2020? After the 2018 cycle House were finally tabulated, including the 2019 special elections to fill vacancies, the Republicans were tasked with converting a net 18 seats to obtain a bare one-vote majority.

Such a calculation has changed, however. The North Carolina court-mandated redistricting plan, the state’s third in this decade, will cost the Republicans at least two seats, meaning the GOP majority conversion number increases to 20. The Van Drew switch now reduces that number to 19, assuming each party holds their two vacant seats that will be decided in special elections prior to the regular 2020 general election.

Van Drew decided to switch parties due to his opposition to the Trump impeachment plans, but the underlying related reason points to some of his key county Democratic chairmen indicating they would support an intra-party challenge against him. New Jersey political parties are strong, and a Democratic chairman opposing one of his own incumbents would be taken seriously. The party endorsements in this state carry tangible benefits, including a particular advantageous ballot placement. An incumbent not receiving the party endorsement goes a long way to seeing such an office holder replaced.

The Republican move doesn’t solve all of Rep. Van Drew’s political problems, however. Upon hearing the party switching speculation, venture capitalist David Richter stated that not only is he remaining in the Republican primary to face Van Drew, but he is prepared to spend $1 million of his own money to win the nomination. On the Democratic side, college professor Brigid Callahan Harrison announced that she will run for the party nomination, and others are expected to soon follow her lead. It is clear that Rep. Van Drew will face both a competitive Republican primary and general election to secure a second term.

New Jersey’s 2nd District occupies the southern part of the state, stretching from the Wilmington, DE suburbs all the way to the Atlantic Ocean. It contains four whole counties and parts of four others, though the district’s portion of Ocean, Camden, and Burlington Counties each contain less than 10 percent of the entity population.

The 2nd, anchored in the Atlantic City area, is a marginal political district that has trended more Republican in recent elections. President Trump recorded a 51-46 percent win here, but President Barack Obama twice carried the district in his national campaigns. Prior to Van Drew converting this seat for the Democrats in 2018, Republican Frank LoBiondo won 12 consecutive elections after moving it into the GOP column in 1994.

In order to have any chance of re-capturing the House majority, Republicans must take back two of the seats they lost last year in New Jersey. With the Van Drew switch, the GOP is halfway to its state goal, but that realistically means they must defeat either Rep. Andy Kim (D-Bordentown) or freshman Tom Malinowski (D-Rocky Hill) if they are to meet their New Jersey conversion quota.

The other two possible GOP targets, Reps. Josh Gottheimer (D-Wyckoff) and Mikie Sherrill (D-Montclair), both of whom represent seats that were drawn to elect a Republican are in strong position for re-election and look to be winners next year regardless of who becomes their individual opponent.

It is unlikely that we will see any further party switching movement as a result of impeachment or any other reason. The Republicans gain a seat here, at least for the short term, but defeating enough incumbents to return the party to majority status could prove a reach too far.

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