TUCKERTON – Jeff Van Drew is very much a hero to South Jersey Republicans.
First elected to Congress from CD-2 as a Democrat in 2018, Donald Trump brought Van Drew on stage with him during a 2020 rally in Wildwood after the new congressman switched parties. And Van Drew has been a good Republican, quickly picking up the standard lines about fighting radical liberalism.
One who disagrees with this assessment is Sean Pignatelli, a 33-year-old carpenter from Cumberland County. He is challenging Van Drew in this year’s Republican primary. The new map makes the district more Republican than it had been. So the primary probably is for the whole ball of wax.
Like many outsiders, Pignatelli is prone to bristle at Van Drew’s insider status.
“He does look like a hero, but behind closed doors, he’s not who he appears to be,” Pignatelli boldly asserted today over lunch in the Ocean County part of the district.
What does he mean by that?
Pignatelli said Van Drew doesn’t seem to have answers, contending that during the recent Cumberland County convention, the congressman just blamed Democrats for everything.
“I’m not a big fan of that,” he said, adding that voters want to get away from the “blame game.”
So what would they get with Pignatelli?
“I’m different. I’m not the typical Republican,” he says.
He says his campaign is about the “middle class.”
It’s not about protecting “big tech,” nor is it about paying people “not to work,” Pignatelli said.
By middle class, he means teachers, union workers, farmers and the like.
A glance at his website shows positions that cover the political spectrum.
In some places, he’s a very typical Republican.
Pignatelli wants more funding and training for police, backs Second Amendment rights and proposes tax
breaks for farmers.
Yet, some of his positions lean left.
Pignatelli said health care decisions “should be made by a woman and her doctor” and not politicians.
He wants money to expand public transit in South Jersey and says that “with rising sea levels and climate catastrophes we must make a change in order to keep everyone’s homes and families safe.” To that end, he advocates a strong investment in infrastructure.
He also says he wants to fight for the interests of Italian-Americans, who he says are often marginalized and the victims of unfair stereotypes.
Asked about Ukraine, Pignatelli called the Russian invasion “inhumane,” but stopped short of advocating sending in U.S. troops. This puts him in line with many others from both parties.
Issues, of course, in a primary are not that significant.
The main task of a challenger is to establish yourself as a bona fide candidate. Pignatelli has taken leave from his job and is campaigning full time.
He says he’s raised $50,000 so far.
Van Drew won election as a Democrat by about 20,000 votes in 2018; he won in 2020 by about 22,000 as a Republican. Keep in mind that many more people voted in 2020 than in 2018.
There is always political romance in waging a quixotic battle against an established figure. And that can keep a candidate going.
But there is also reality.
Pignatelli found that out earlier this week. He said he was squeezed out of running for the endorsement of Ocean County Republicans because of a technicality.