This really was Jeff Van Drew’s coming out party.
A Republican for about 10 months, he was face-to-face tonight with Amy Kennedy, the Democrat seeking to take the CD-2 seat Van Drew won in 2018 – as a Democrat.
Party switches – especially so early in a representative’s career – can be risky things.
And soon after tonight’s debate began, Van Drew was asked if he had “betrayed” those who voted for him as a Democrat.
Not at all, he replied.
“People voted for me because I’m Jeff Van Drew,” he said in a tone that wasn’t nearly as arrogant as his words sounded. He also questioned polling that indicated many district voters were displeased by his switch. He said his internal polls tell a different story.
By this time, Van Drew already had paid homage to the president. He was asked if
Donald Trump was wrong to visit Bedminster last week for a fundraiser when he may have already tested positive for COVID-19.
Van Drew evaded the question, saying he “couldn’t speak for the president.” He then moved on to blaming China for the virus and even raised the possibility that it may have been “genetically modified” in a lab.
When it was Kennedy’s turn, she, surprisingly, bypassed a great opportunity to tie Van Drew to Trump, saying only that the president has sent “mixed messages.”
A short time later, Van Drew stressed his independence from Trump, who has trumpeted the congressman’s party switch as a major coup for Republicans.
They don’t always agree, Van Drew said.
He then proved it – up to a point.
Van Drew said he doesn’t want to simply eliminate the Affordable Care Act, which has been a GOP position since the act was adopted a decade ago. He wants to improve it. He also said he accepts climate change, which is a major issue in a district with a large coastline. Again, this is not a universal Republican position. He said he does not unilaterally oppose abortion, but is against “late term” abortion and federal funding of it. He also expressed somewhat of a nuanced view of gun control, supporting more background checks but not limiting magazine capacity.
All this made Van Drew sound a lot like what he was 12 months ago – a conservative Democrat.
This did not give Kennedy, who is slightly ahead in most polls, all that much to attack. For whatever reason – coincidence perhaps – Van Drew seemed to speak much more than Kennedy in a debate sponsored by NJ Spotlight News.
One difference that surfaced was about voting itself.
Kennedy likes what will be a mostly vote-by-mail election, saying it made for a large turnout in the primary.
Van Drew talked about ballots being sent to the dead and to those who have moved. In truth, this is a standard Republican talking point; one fueled by Trump himself.
However, it ignores the fact that the important point is not ballots sent out, but those returned. It’s hard for the dead to return a ballot.
Regarding the pandemic, Kennedy supported another federal stimulus package, saying “We know that families in south Jersey have been struggling.”
Van Drew wants a stimulus package as well, but he said it should reimburse governments for pandemic expenses, not reward poor fiscal practices.
This was a very polite debate. The only chippy part of it occurred when the candidates were asked about their opponent’s campaign literature.
Kennedy said Van Drew continues “to put words in my mouth” by saying she wants to “defund the police.”
Kennedy said she supports no such thing. In fact, she said she supports spending money to enhance police training.
Van Drew insisted Kennedy gave support to defunding the police during the primary, when she faced a spirited challenge.
She denied it.
And she said the untrue attacks don’t go over well with those who know her as a local schoolteacher.
Mindful of the fact Kennedy married into one of the nation’s most famous political families, Van Drew told his challenger, “You’re not an ordinary schoolteacher.”