PITTSGROVE – Elk is the name of an adjoining town down here, a short way up the road from Butch’s Gun Shop, which welcomes you to Vineland, ground zero of that bear-pelted political world occupied by Senator Jeff Van Drew (D-1), conservative Democrat for Congress in New Jersey’s 2nd District.
Almost Brian Stack-like in the kinds of body-packing political events he puts on, Van Drew trusts in his consistent brand of organization-building and delicate political moves-making as he seeks the seat left behind by retiring U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R-2) in politically turbulent conditions. If he has a somewhat complicated shot to the seat of power – in this case a plus-1 GOP district – it’s an obstacle course he’s run before, or even invented – confounding North Jersey progressives with his consistent rightward step on the state budget and other issues – but winning elections down here – and trending strong now. As he heads into the final days before the June 5th Democratic Primary against retired teacher Tanzie Youngblood and other contenders amid nationally furrowed brows about what exactly constitutes a “Democrat”, the early protests among liberals on guns, public pensions and benefits and other issues runs up against that always bewildering bulkhead or reality, in this case the 8-0 county organization backing Van Drew possesses.
The general election here presents other forces beyond his control: the potential for Trump unpredictability to play havoc with his chances (at present, Trump polls well in CD2, and the best positioned Republican candidate, Hirsh Singh, proudly proclaims his support); push-back against perceived liberal Governor Phil Murphy, and potential backlash against top-of-the-ticket occupant U.S. Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ), who polls well elsewhere in New Jersey, but not on this deep South outer coastal plain that is the state senator’s well-worn turf.
But the eminently cautious Van Drew – without throwing a punch at the President – trusts the durability of his conservative brand.
“I believe regardless of what’s swirling around you, if you stand up and advocate for the people that care about and that you care about, then you can prevail,” the dentist by trade told InsiderNJ this evening at a small, intimate fundraiser held in his honor by Lou Magazzu at the Running Deer Golf Club.
There’s some history here.
Then-Assemblyman Van Drew made the move upward in 2007, challenging Nick Asselta for the LD1 senate seat in the Republican South Jersey District. He defined himself as an early and aggressive opponent of Democratic Governor Jon Corzine’s asset monetization plan. In a critical battleground election that year, Van Drew beat Asselta (28,240 to 22,469 votes) to claim the senate perch, and joined a new class of senate Democrats that included Senator Brian P. Stack, and the late Senator Jim Whelan. Four years later, he had a closer election when he defeated Republican Dave DeWeese by fewer than 4,000 votes.
A cross-the-aisle of Republican Governor Chris Christie, Van Drew was a reliable aye vote come crunch time.
When Christie ran for reelection in 2013, Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean, Jr. (R-21), hoped to parlay Christie’s strength as an incumbent into Republican legislative wins. The senator picked women candidates to offset any opportunity for Democrats’ incisions with gubernatorial nominee Senator Barbara Buono (D-18) at the top of the ticket, among them Susan Adelizzi Schmidt in LD1, viewed initially as a strong Republican challenger to Democrat Van Drew.
But Christie – aiming for the presidency in 2016 – didn’t forget his Democratic Party allies in South Jersey, and avoided opportunities to run side by side with those Republican candidates recruited by Kean.
While Adelizzi Schmidt and Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3) challenger Nikki Trunk stewed in their respective districts, avoided like the plague by a North Jersey-campaigning Christie, Van Drew looked to run up the score on Election Day.
He beat Adelizzi Schmidt by fewer than 8,000 votes, or double his victory over DeWeese.
It gave him the stronger toehold he craved to lay claim to a federal run, if it ever came to that, and it did. As Van Drew put a 65-34% 2017 demolition job on Republican challenger Mary Gruccio, his biggest margin to date, and gratifying as the GOP tried to harness him to the incoming Murphy, raging moderate LoBiondo, assailed by the partisan era of President Donald J. Trump – cried no mas in Congress.
Van Drew would run.
Having spent a 16-year legislative career (six years in the assembly prior to his decade in the senate) defining himself as a conservative Democrat in a district he ripped from the GOP, he figured he had significant strands of Republican support, enough to make for hellish turf against a general election opponent. Among the fundraisers for him this evening, a devious presence over a cocktail, almost pitying Singh, if it is indeed Singh, made the case for Van Drew – the ultimate cross-the-aisle-no-labels-guy siphoning significant establishment support come election crunch time. Alert to how Van Drew defines the term, the Cook Report leans the district Democrat.