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Jeff Van Drew was always a 'confounding figure' in New Jersey politics. Switching parties hasn't changed that.
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Jeff Van Drew was always a 'confounding figure' in New Jersey politics. Switching parties hasn't changed that.

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Election Day 2020 Van Drew

Jeff Van Drew celebrates his reelection Nov. 3 at the Oar House Restaurant in Sea Isle City.

A Feb. 28 phone message that Ocean City resident John McCall left on Representative Jeff Van Drew's home telephone. Van Drew said he reported the Feb. 28 voicemail threat to the Capitol Police in Washington, D.C., which sent Ocean City police to McCall's home to interview him.

When Jeff Van Drew opposed an infrastructure bill last week that included millions for his South Jersey district, the Democratic-turned-Republican congressman was the state’s only lawmaker in either party to vote no.

For Democrats, it was just the latest sign that their party-switching colleague has abandoned his reputation as a work-across-the-aisle moderate since he defected in 2019 and pledged his “undying support” to Donald Trump. Since winning reelection last year, Van Drew has voted to overturn the 2020 presidential race and opposed forming a commission to investigate the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection.

But like many times in his long political career, the Jeff Van Drew of 2021 defies easy characterization. He has voted for lower-profile bills opposed by many Republicans, including one to remove Confederate statues from the Capitol and another expanding birth-control access for veterans. Several times, he’s been one of few Republicans to cross party lines.

And while Democrats paint him as an extremist, independent analysts, Republicans and even some Democrats acknowledge he likely enters his reelection campaign in as strong a political position as ever in his moderate district. With congressional lines being redrawn next year, he could be further cemented in the rare slice of New Jersey that has trended toward the GOP.

“He’s actually come into closer alignment with the district” since changing parties, said Dave Wasserman, an analyst at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. “This is pretty much the only part of New Jersey that is trending toward Trump, and Jeff Van Drew benefits from that.”

Van Drew’s 2019 switch after decades as a Democrat drew national attention. But Van Drew said last week that South Jersey voters know him for an independent streak dating to his days as a pro-gun Democrat in the state Legislature. In Congress, he said, he votes based on what most of his constituents want.

“Most Americans are either a little left of center or a little right of center. They really are,” he said. “Some people would have you believe it isn’t like that, but I don’t accept that.”

Voteview, which rates lawmakers’ votes on a liberal-to-conservative spectrum, said Van Drew’s record is more liberal than 98% of his fellow Republicans during the current Congress and more conservative than 52% of the House overall. Those figures were similar for his first term.

“He’s always been a confounding figure in this way, because his opponents don’t know how to pigeonhole him,” said Chris Russell, a longtime GOP strategist who used to work on campaigns against Van Drew. “He was difficult to beat as a Democrat, and now that the shoe’s on the other foot, it’s the same. Republicans have embraced him, independents have stuck with him and the Democrats who freaked out and left him, he’d probably say good riddance.”

Some of Van Drew’s Democratic colleagues say he’s gone too far.

“You cannot be a Trumper and be considered moderate,” said Rep. Donald Norcross, D-1st. “The two terms do not go together.”

Rep. Bill Pascrell, D-9th, agreed.

“I don’t want to work with him, I don’t want to talk to him, I don’t want to see him,” Pascrell said. “I wish him well, I wish his family well, but to me, he’s a traitor. That’s it. Done.”

A fixture of South Jersey politics for decades, Van Drew served in the state Legislature before flipping a GOP-held congressional district. In supporting his 2018 campaign, national Democrats touted his moderate profile as ideal for the sprawling 2nd Congressional District, which encompasses a growing swath of South Jersey, from Cape May and Atlantic City to Burlington and Gloucester counties. It supported Barack Obama twice before Trump won the district in 2016 and 2020.

“This is a place where the shifts of the Democratic brand toward professional suburbanites has left some voters feeling left behind,” Wasserman said.

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Van Drew, he said, has built a strong personal brand that allowed him to maintain a hold on voters in Cape May County. “That appeal transferred when he became a Republican.”

In Van Drew’s eyes, that’s because the Democratic Party has moved too far left. He was one of few Democrats to vote against Trump’s first impeachment. Some furious donors demanded their money back, and party leaders called him an opportunist for defecting.

His defection inspired Amy Kennedy, a former schoolteacher who married into the Kennedy political dynasty, to challenge him last year. Her campaign targeted voters who felt betrayed by his embrace of Trump, and she outspent him by almost $1 million.

But Van Drew won, 52% to 46%.

Though national Democrats say they are still targeting Van Drew, some in New Jersey suggest the party may be willing to effectively wave a white flag in the decennial redistricting. Party insiders say they may reach for a compromise that makes Van Drew’s right-leaning district more safely Republican, in exchange for shoring up Democratic Rep. Andy Kim’s neighboring battleground in the 3rd District.

Some Republicans scoffed at that idea, arguing they don’t need a friendlier district to protect Van Drew. A bipartisan commission will redraw congressional lines next year, though the state’s political powers are sure to put pressure on the process.

Norcross and Pascrell described Van Drew as estranged from the state’s House delegation, which has only two Republicans.

Norcross, whose district borders Van Drew’s, said they have a “cordial” relationship. Van Drew was once allied with the South Jersey political machine led by Norcross’ brother, insurance executive George E. Norcross III. But Donald Norcross suggested Van Drew was a loner even as a Democrat, recalling monthly dinners with the delegation.

“Jeff was not always a 100% attender, let’s put it that way,” Norcross said.

When Van Drew does side with Republicans, it’s often on votes that are of keen interest to Trump’s supporters.

Hours after the fatal insurrection at the Capitol by a pro-Trump mob demanding the election be overturned, Van Drew voted to toss Pennsylvania’s results. New Jersey’s other Republican House member, Chris Smith, opposed reversing the results.

Van Drew doesn’t dispute the legitimacy of President Joe Biden’s election but said he voted against the results because he questioned the constitutionality of changes made to election rules last year.

He acknowledged his vote could be interpreted as an endorsement of Trump’s stolen election lies. But he said some of his constituents share his concerns about election integrity.

“No one’s going to win or lose an election based on that,” he said.

Democrats are betting he’s wrong. A group called “Who Is Van Drew?” has been holding rallies outside his Mays Landing office, drawing attention to issues where Van Drew has “flip-flopped.”

Van Drew has voted against several bills he cosponsored, including one that includes expanding mail voting and public financing for campaigns, and one for expanding background checks for guns. He also voted against Biden’s sweeping coronavirus relief bill.

Van Drew said he changes his mind on legislation when bills are amended in ways he disagrees with, or when he learns more about the subject.

For last week’s infrastructure bill, he requested millions in earmarks that would have funded bridge and road improvements in South Jersey. But he said the full bill was overly focused on electric vehicles. He was confident his proposed earmarks would become part of future legislation.

Tim Alexander, a South Jersey civil rights attorney and former police officer running against Van Drew next year, said voters won’t believe Van Drew’s claims that he isn’t beholden to party politics — and won’t forget that he went along with Trump’s attempts to stay in office.

“As an elected official, it’s your job to tell people the truth,” he said. “Imagine if Jeff Van Drew told the truth, what would happen to him. Whatever influence that Trump still has would go elsewhere, and he knows that.”

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