It was supposed to be a beat down tonight, state Senator Jeff Van Drew (D-1) – the model of forbearance and conservative concern – against former Atlantic City Councilman Seth Grossman, who has threatened throughout the course of this campaign season at any moment to implode in another “diversity is a bunch of crap” headline haze.
It became apparent early how this would go.
“I support President Trump, that’s why I’m running,” Grossman announced onstage at Stockton University in the candidates’ first clash of the season, a contest Van Drew apparently leads by 23-points.
That would be his recurring argument and organizing campaign principle.
“I want to expose the ignorance and intolerance [of the Democrats],” said the Republican, a movement conservative who wriggled through the GOP Primary after the Republican establishment backed a neophyte candidate who split the vote with former Assemblyman Sam Fiocchi.
“Are there any Republican pro-Trump professors at Stockton?” he asked the crowd. “If not, you’re not getting a complete balanced education. Walk away.”
Scattered hand claps competed with gasps.
Democrats have taxed New Jersey to death, Grossman argued.
His opponent sought to let the Republican wall himself off from the room in partisanship.
“I voted no,” Van Drew announced, in reference to the gas tax. “Those taxes – most particularly the gas tax – I never voted for.”
The senator for years grated the teeth of northern Democratic counterparts who prayed he would morph into a progressive. But now, running for the seat being vacated by the retiring U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R-2) he appeared to be able to defang his Republican rival in key areas.
“I never voted for sanctuary cities to get more money,” Van Drew said, sedately seeking to defuse the fire blanket attacks.
“For God’s sake, let’s tell the truth,” he added.
Just as it looked like he might be the ultra conservative Republican in the contest, the senator acknowledged the existence of climate change, then put a populist punctuation point on his view, noting that “if you don’t like scientists, listen to the fishermen.”
Grossman slugged back.
“Climate change has been changing for five billion years, go ask Noah,” he said.
Van Drew said America is great, and can be better.
Grossman said we are in an era of mob rule.
“You have people who can’t even go out to a restaurant because their views are different,” said the Republican, apparently referencing an episode involving Trump spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
The senator lightly parried.
“You have some people on the extremes on both sides who get carried away and are hurtful,” Van Drew clarified, promising to be a congressman who will unite the district.
Grossman probably made history as the first New Jersey candidate ever to mention the name of a Russian novelist in a debate.
“I don’t know if they still teach Dostoyevsky, I hope they do,” said the attorney at one point.
Voices bubbled in the auditorium.
“It’s for the people to decide,” said Van Drew, returning to the quote that defined his opponent at the outset. “You did say ‘diversity is a bunch of crap.’ You did share a white skinhead periodical with people, you did make statements about Kwanza, like it was a communist and socialist plot.”
“In America, I wonder how many people could have gotten into Harvard if you didn’t have these diversity quotas,” he said.
“I think we are a diverse nation,” the senator said. ” I think we do have a responsibility to grant human beings opportunity.”
They wrestled on every – or nearly every – issue. Van Drew favored a federal government role in hurricane relief. Grossman said no. Van Drew opposed Brett Kavanaugh’s appointment to the Supreme Court. Grossman supports Kavanaugh. Grossman would “work with President Trump” to replace the Affordable Care Act. Van Drew said the GOP didn’t “have anything to replace it with.”
Grossman clung throughout to the Republican Party or at least drove an anti-Democrat case.
“Walk away from Democrats. You have been lied to by Democrats,” he said.
“That was a harsh and partisan answer to a serious question,” observed Van Drew, who seemed effortlessly centrist while Grossman attempted, with an admixture of strident partisan tones and reinforcing arguments of the “diversity is crap” variety, to make something happen as the event offered little in the way of a major surprise.