Van Drew and the Portents of Power in CD-2

Van Drew

Names surfaced, but with them came caution and gloomy acknowledgement of the dimensions of the district, which favor a Republican, which is why U.S. Rep. Jeff Van Drew was who he was and is who he is.

His decision to oppose the impeachment of President Donald J. Trump prompted the Democratic Party establishment to pull the plug on him, shoving him into the arms of President Donald J. Trump, who oversaw his transformation from pragmatic Dem to New Jersey’s 2020 winner of The Apprentice otherwise known as Jeff Van Flew.

The congressman’s apparent decision to cut ties with the party he came up in but finally felt alienated from sparked outrage everywhere. Democrats were angry. Republicans were angry. His staff was angry. Party chairs were angry.

Van Drew was underground.

“Jeff has played this little game for years, and it finally caught up with him,” said one Democrat, speaking on condition of anonymity, as he considered then-Senator Van Drew’s track record of providing crunch time Senate Budget Committee votes to Gov. Chris Christie, who through Van Drew added another layer of political adhesive to the South Jersey Democratic Machine.

Christie’s relationship with Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3) gave Van Drew cover in 2013 when the South Jersey ran for reelection in a district favorable to Christie. Van Drew had backed him at key junctures, but the presence of Christie at the top of the opposing ticket facing Barbara Buono and Van Drew required a deft touch.

Sweeney faced the same trouble in his own district.

Apparently not in on the joke, state Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean, Jr. went and recruited actual real candidates in 3 (Sweeney’s district) and 1 (Van Drew’s).

But Christie, on the strength of preserving his relationship with South Jersey Democrats, and in acknowledgement of Van Drew’s (and Sweeney’s) votes-in-a-pinch alliance, left their districts alone down south as he ran up the score over Buono at the side of Democrats Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo and state Senator Brian P. Stack (D-33) up north.

All three won comfortably: Christie, Sweeney and Van Drew.

Christie’s assessment of the situation in the aftermath?

Kean needed to go.

He lost seats.

The senate Republican caucus didn’t buy the governor’s spin, and protected Kean.

They knew the GOP had missed a chance to capitalize on the minority leader’s good faith effort to use Christie’s position on the Republican ticket to build the party.

But Christie didn’t care about the NJ GOP at that point.

At that particular pre-Bridgegate explosion moment in time, he wanted to be president.

And now, Van Drew is not interested in building his party.

He wants to be congressman.

If President Donald J. Trump had not welcomed their investigation and Democrats had not pursued his impeachment, Van Drew could have pressed onward, likely with impunity, as New Jersey’s most conservative Democrats, who understands the district better than the liberals up north intent on condemning him from afar.

But the impeachment vote exposed the flank uncovered in his own party, in a federal district that was more Democratic than the state legislative where he had competed for 20 years. With progressives in agony over Trump, even in the 1st District the party establishment could not tread past a certain point. And in this case it was looking the other way as Van Drew counted himself just one of two Democrats nationwide opposing impeachment.

Jeff… please…. they pleaded.

But Van Drew knew his constituents.

He believed they didn’t believe in impeachment.

Just look at the results of the November legislative elections where his protege, Robert Andrzejzcak, a war hero, lost by six points to a proud Trump Republican.

He couldn’t reverse himself now.

But the party organizations couldn’t support him if he didn’t support impeachment.

They were hearing it, feeling it.

What was the point of even having a party organization if it can’t back the impeachment of Trump.

Montclair University Political Science Professor Brigid Harrison was ready.

West Cape May Commissioner John Francis was ready.

Cumberland County Freeholder Jack Surrency was contemplating a run.

Atlantic County Freeholder Ashley Bennett (whose musing supposedly scared Van Drew) was looking at at closely.

Former FBI man Robert “Turk” Turkavage just became a Democrat.

He ran for Congress in 2018 as a Republican.

If Van Drew could become a Republican and run for Congress, couldn’t Turk become a Dem?

Amy Kennedy, a school teacher and the wife of former U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-RI) was supposedly giving it a hard look.

Kennedy didn’t want to do it himself.

But his wife, given the right circumstances and support, might.

No one from the party establishment, that is the South Jersey Democratic machine, appeared eager to jump in (an early Cumberland County Clerk Celeste Riley trial balloon proved to go nowehere) but the progressive, grassroots undergrowth breathing on the establishment, made the establishment nervous.

Still Van Drew, conditioned over a lifetime of knowing his base, and with Andrzejczak’s loss, knew he had to augur right.

It was just who he was.

It’s who the district was.

Van Drew was a pragmatist.

He wasn’t going to let the left of the party dictate his politics.

Screw them. They didn’t live where he lived.

Amid grumblings of South Jersey boss George Norcross’ membership at Trump’s golf course, and an upswell in the aftermath of Van Drew news about New Jersey’s most infamous Mar-a-Lago Democrat, U.S. Rep. Donald Norcross (D-1), the younger brother of the boss, issued a statement demanding that Van Drew apologize to Democratic State Party Chairman John Currie.

Currie was the chosen chair of Governor Phil Murphy, persona non grata with the South, whose forces have aligned behind an alternative state party chair, LeRoy Jones, to supplant Currie – and embarrass Murphy.

Still, Norcross – who backed impeachment, he carefully noted in his public statement, wanted Van Drew to apologize to Currie and those other Dems who had backed him.

Kennedy, incidentally, wanted his money back.

He had donated to Van Drew.

He wanted a reimbursement.

And yet – those who had run before, among them Bill Hughes, Jr., son of the late U.S. Rep. Bill Hughes, weren’t exactly jumping back into the fray.

The party was outraged by Van Drew because they had to be.

The base was outraged.

But would the establishment get all in and go all out for, say, a Hughes, or a Harrison, someone not molded by the machine the way Van Drew had been?

Hughes on paper had looked like an excellent candidate.

But the machine lowballed him in 2014.

Why?

They were waiting for Van Drew.

“Well,” a source chuckled bitterly amid the rolling headlines, “they got him.”

Despite an onrush of public statements that they would fight on the beaches to retain the CD-2 seat, the Democratic Party establishment’s top of the pyramid personal ties to the president provoked ongoing skepticism in the party.

The fact that Trump himself had undertaken to flip Van Drew sparked simultaneous rage and incredulity among Republicans prepared for a real primary to face Van Drew in 2020.

Conservative Republican Bob Patterson issued a statement digging in.

So did Brian Fitzherbert.

But self-funder David Ritcher seemed less than warpaint-ready.

No new names emerged.

Was it because the GOP establishment already knew Van Drew would be – if not necessarily their best or their most ideologically pure, but their politically most astute – chance to retain the seat, while perpetuating a New Jersey, of all places, narrative about Democrats in the House bucking impeachment?

Just as Democrats had to be careful with the consequences of deal-making at the highest levels of power, so too did the GOP, even if Trump won the district (by single digits!) in 2016.

It was volatile.

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