Earlier this year, before the pandemic pushed the nation into a lockdown, thousands of Trump supporters filled the Wildwood Convention Center in South Jersey, many wearing their trademark red hats, others holding signs saying, “Make America Great Again.”
President Donald Trump was in the 2nd Congressional District where he’d once owned casinos, to give Incumbent Congressman Jeff Van Drew a boost in his Republican primary. Van Drew, a long-time Democrat had switched parties becoming a Republican after his 2018 win, pledging his allegiance to Trump.
Up North, across some of New Jersey’s suburban and urban districts, many watched the rally coverage on TV feeling kind of baffled, wondering how Trump could have so many die-hard supporters down in Jersey’s southern corners.
For the past 28 years, New Jersey’s been predictable when it comes to presidential races, signaling their preference for Democrats in the White House. The last time voters in the Garden State went red was back in 1988, when they picked George Herbert Walker Bush for President.
But in South Jersey’s 2nd Congressional District, voters have been unpredictable. In 2008, they voted for President Barack Obama, and in 2016, for President Trump.
The Cook Political Report has changed its view of the district, calling it a Republican leaning one, as opposed to a “Republican toss up.” What makes the district even more interesting is that 37 percent of voters are unaffiliated.
While presidential race results here are unlikely to turn Jersey Red, the candidate voters choose to represent them in the U.S. House of Representatives will have huge, national implications. The Democratic majority in the House isn’t that big so one seat can make a big difference.
It’s against this incalculable backdrop that Democrat Amy Kennedy, part of an American Dynasty, is now
waging an all-out war against Congressman Van Drew. Kennedy is married to Patrick Kennedy, who is the son of the late U.S. Senator Ted Kennedy. The mother of five is backed by Democratic Governor Phil Murphy and the Party’s political machine up North. Most of them incensed Van Drew flipped, calling him a “turncoat,” which in Jersey lingo could be one of the worst insults lodged against a politician.
“I think there are reasons to question my opponent in terms of integrity and character and whether or not they’re really going to trust that he’s going to represent the things he says he’s going to represent if he’s re-elected,” said Kennedy, a mental health advocate and a former public school teacher.
The hotly-contested race has once again put New Jersey on the theatrical, political stage, reminiscent of the drama-filled days when Republican Governor Chris Christie led the state. Here’s Congressman Van Drew at the Republican National Convention, kind of sounding like an in-your-face Christie.
“Democratic leaders told me that I had to vote for impeachment or my life would be made difficult and I wouldn’t be allowed to run again,” said Congressman Van Drew during his address at the RNC. “Listen, I’m from South Jersey, and you’d better come at me with more than just loud words and empty threats.”
Van Drew, who hasn’t responded to several InsiderNJ interview requests, also told the national audience that “In 2018, after being elected to Congress as a Democrat, I was already uncomfortable with the San Francisco Liberal running the House, which is why my first vote was cast against Nancy Pelosi for speaker. But imagine how I felt when I noticed members of ‘The Squad’ take control of the Democratic Party just weeks after being elected? The Democratic Party had moved from Liberal to Radical!”
Peter Woolley, the Director of Fairleigh Dickinson University’s School of Public and Global Affairs, says he believes Van Drew switched parties because he saw the writing on the wall after his slim-margin victory in 2018.
“He ran against a strange Republican challenger,” Woolley said. “Here you had a real bad Republican challenger and he managed to nonetheless get 45 percent of the vote. Van Drew, by contrast, only got 52 percent of the vote and he looked at that and said, as a well-known Democrat who’s been around for a very long time, I should have won by a larger margin.
“He calculated that if he flipped his membership to the Republican Party, he’d have a much better chance at being re-elected.”
To understand Trump’s strong support among Republicans in the 2nd Congressional District, you have to familiarize yourself with the area, which is often forgotten by the rest of Jersey.
The district spans a huge chunk of the southern portion of the state, including Cumberland, Atlantic, Cape May, Gloucester and Salem counties, each community different from the other. The district’s part of either the Philadelphia or Delaware Valley areas. In Atlantic City, you’ll find towering casinos along the ocean but poverty-stricken communities more inland. It’s where Democratic Presidential candidate Joe Biden’s wife, Jill, was born, in blueberry country Hammonton. In Cape May County, quaint communities dot the shoreline and voters tend to be wealthy and conservative. Salem County is across the bay from Delaware, where Joe and Jill Biden still live and where Joe Biden served as a U.S. Senator.
Woolley, who grew up in Wildwood, says many blue collar voters in the district that’s racially less integrated, are attracted to Trump’s populist message rather than his ties to the area as an elitist, Atlantic City casino owner.
“South Jersey has a lower medium income and Republican voters there are not tepid Trump voters,” Woolley said. “Republicans in South Jersey are full-out Trump supporters. You can’t say that about Republicans in Morris or Somerset Counties. Up North, you have a group of Republicans who are better educated, much more prosperous, and much more about tax breaks than they are about social conservatism or angry rebellious politics.”
As to whether Joe and Jill Biden’s connections to the district could help Kennedy, Woolley added, “I think those ties to the area (Hammonton) are fairly weak and there aren’t a lot of voters in some of those counties. That’s really not the great population centers.”
There are also two other candidates running in the 2nd Congressional District race, Libertarian Jesse Ehrnstrom and Progressive Liberal Jenna Harvey. Like Kennedy, they’re focusing on the issues that have gripped South Jersey, like job losses and the Opioid Crisis.
“Government has taken too much control of our lives and Democrats, Republicans and independents, they’re all sick of it,” said Ehrnstrom, a 27-year-old assistant store manager. “My main priority is to end the drug war, decriminalize all drugs so municipalities can move forward with treating it as a public health crisis.”
“I am not a politician,” said Harvey, who’s overseen community anti-drug coalitions and stresses she was the mother of two children by the age of 19 but was able to feed her kids because of programs like SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program). “I have no coach, I have no friends that are Federally-elected officials.”
Harvey, a Cumberland County resident with a master’s degree, makes sure not to offend Trump supporters, who could possibly veer into her lane.
“Historically, those are the people who avoid the polls, too,” said Harvey, of unaffiliated voters. “They avoid conversations and they avoid the polls. What’s going to be interesting to see is how this vote-by-mail system may have people reconsider sitting it out.”
Kennedy’s reaching out to independents, as well, focusing on the Coronavirus’ human and economic toll.
“When we’re talking about the virus and its impact, we need to, of course, be focused on healthcare and how the economy can build back better,” Kennedy said. “Make sure we’re looking for ways to diversify so that there are great job opportunities in South Jersey that’s going to include building up our infrastructure and protect pensions and social security for those who have worked so long.”
“I talk to Democrats, who feel like they were almost, like, bamboozled,” Ehrnstrom said. “I talk to Republicans, who know for a fact that just because he (Van Drew) considered himself a conservative Democrat, he’s not for small government.”
Democrats are conducting their own polls, trying to analyze voter behavior in the 2nd Congressional District, hoping new numbers showing Democrats now outnumber Independents in New Jersey could also apply to this southern district.
But any attempts at predicting whether Van Drew will hold on to his seat or if Kennedy will win by a slim margin may be as futile as trying to figure out what happened in the last episode of the “Sopranos.”
Plus, the last six months have made most New Jerseyans and Americans feel like they’ve been living through a Sci-Fi movie, with each day and hour unpredictable.
With an uncertain future looming over the lives of many people, the old cliche that says anything can happen between now and the November Election is more true in 2020 than it has ever been in the history of this nation.