New Jersey’s CD2: Ground Zero for Politics Nationwide

After beating the Trump-loving Grossman, Van Drew reached out to President Trump on the floor of the House ahead of Trump's state of the Union speech.

It’s a land of casinos and cranberries, beaches and bogs, boardwalks and blueberries, poverty and plenty.  It is over 2,000 square miles and Its coastlines are washed by the waters of the Atlantic Ocean and Delaware Bay.

It is home to a city in which more than $3 billion changed hands last year, but where nearly 10 percent of the city workforce is unemployed and nearly 40 percent of its residents live below poverty level.

It is a place of picture postcard Victorian mansions and huts built on stilts above wetlands.

It is New Jersey’s Second Congressional district, the state’s southernmost land mass, covering all or parts of eight counties: Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland and Salem in their entirety and rural and suburban municipalities in Burlington, Camden, Gloucester and Ocean.

And, until now, it’s been a political backwater, largely overlooked as a region with little  statewide impact, relegated to second place or lower status.  The genuine political clout always lay to its more populous north with its metropolitan areas, dominant corporate presence, major media markets and upscale culture and income.

The sea change which has swept the region this year has propelled it into the center of New Jersey’s political environment and attracted national attention, sparked by the decision of Congressman Jeff Van Drew to change his party affiliation from Democrat to Republican, enthusiastically embrace President Trump and become a vocal anti-impeachment spokesperson.

From that decision — reached, according to Van Drew, because of the Democratic Party’s demand that he support impeachment or face a primary challenge — flowed a series of political maneuvers and the kind of backroom intrigue so beloved by the media.

It reached into the White House itself with the President and Van Drew posing for a photo op in the Oval Office and a presidential appearance and sold out rally in Wildwood.

Republicans who had lined up to oppose Van Drew’s re-election as a Democrat suddenly found themselves as his potential primary opponents.

A half dozen Democrats leapt into the contest, teeing up a potentially contentious campaign for the opportunity to run against a Trump/VanDrew slate in November, all convinced that the party switch coupled with Trump’s unpopularity would be sufficient to turn the district blue.

Republican leaders in the district rapidly coalesced behind VanDrew, forcing the withdrawal from the race of Brian Fitzherbert of Egg Harbor Township and rescinding the endorsement of David Richter, a wealthy business executive who moved from Princeton to Avalon to seek the nomination and who is now reportedly considering moving yet again to the neighboring Third District to enter the Republican primary to oppose Rep. Andy Kim.

When Brigid Callahan Harrison, a Montclair University professor, announced her intention to oppose Van Drew in the Democratic primary, she quickly scooped up endorsements from six of the eight county chairs in the district as well as that of Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) and — more significantly — a leading legislator closely aligned with South Jersey powerbroker George Norcross.

Van Drew’s party change, while not impacting Harrison’s plans, quickly drew Amy Kennedy, wife of former Rhode Island Democratic Congressman Patrick Kennedy, into the race where she instantly become a formidable candidate.

While there are four other Democrats in the contest, it appears to be a largely Harrison-Kennedy competition — Harrison with establishment endorsements and Kennedy with an instantly recognizable political name and connected by marriage to one of the nation’s most storied families.

There is something of a wishful thinking air surrounding Kennedy’s candidacy, a belief that the Kennedy name and family will carry the day for her.  The Kennedy mystique remains strong, the theory goes, and Democrats will respond favorably to it.

Perhaps.  But, it’s been 57 years since President Kennedy was assassinated; 52 years since Sen. Robert Kennedy was assassinated, and 10 years since the death of Sen. Ted Kennedy.

To be sure, the Kennedys are forever a part of United States history, but whether their impact remains strong and the lure of their legacies remains vivid is open to question.

Amy Kennedy has made clear she is her own person, seeking public office on the strength of her qualifications and the appeal of her policy positions. Her last name shouldn’t matter.

Harrison, while enjoying the support of the party movers and shakers, has made it clear she will not stand down in the face of a Kennedy challenge and will rely rather heavily on the organizational support already pledged to her.

In the minds of some, her association with the Norcross wing of the party may be a drawback, given the controversy swirling around the South Jersey leader, but it would be a mistake to underestimate the clout he and his organization still maintain, especially in South Jersey.

When it comes to putting bodies on the streets and herding voters to the polls, the Norcross machine has a history of success.  There’ve been setbacks and losses, to be sure, but the underlying strength hasn’t diminished appreciably.

Going all in for Harrison will be a major, potentially make or break test for it and it will be treated as such.  Norcross fully understands the stakes, both immediate and long term.

In the meantime, Van Drew has a clear path to the nomination, freeing him from the time and expense of fending off a primary challenge and concentrating on fund-raising.

The national Republican Party has thrown resources and organizational support to him, treating the race as a test of the president’s ability to not only impact the contest but to tout a victory as a validation of his presidency.

Trump carried the Second District by five points over Hillary Clinton in 2016 and the decision by Van Drew to oppose impeachment and change parties is reflective of constituent sentiment.

Had the Democratic leaders in the district not been drawn into a public brawl over Van Drew’s opposition to impeaching the president and given him a pass on casting what would have been a meaningless vote against it, he would have sought re-election and in all likelihood kept the seat in Democratic hands.

That short-sightedness put the seat in play and could well turn out to be one of the more egregious political blunders in recent history.

Van Drew will likely enter the general election as a slight favorite and possibly a stronger one if the Democratic primary becomes so divisive that the warring factions can’t arrive at a truce before November.

This land of cranberries, beaches, blueberries, and casinos isn’t accustomed to this level of attention and scrutiny and should consider girding for an influx of big foot journalists posing pointed questions about voters’ innermost thoughts and opinions.

Long time residents may yearn for a return to the days when they were considered Pinelands denizens, living “somewhere down there” by their more sophisticated North Jersey cousins.

Carl Golden is a senior contributing analyst with the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Stockton University.

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