Democratic challenger on Van Drew's party switch: 'He betrayed our community'

 Democratic challenger on Van Drew's party switch: 'He betrayed our community'
© Will Cunningham campaign

A former Democratic staffer defeated by Rep. Jefferson Van Drew (R) in a New Jersey primary in 2018 is expressing confidence he can defeat the incumbent, who has since switched parties over President TrumpDonald John TrumpRouhani says Iran will never seek nuclear weapons Trump downplays seriousness of injuries in Iran attack after US soldiers treated for concussions Trump says Bloomberg is 'wasting his money' on 2020 campaign MORE’s impeachment.

Will Cunningham, an openly gay African American who worked on Capitol Hill for six years, announced his House bid last week, joining a crowded field of Democrats itching to take out Van Drew after he became a Republican late last year.

Cunningham said he decided to hop into the race after receiving encouragement from Democrats within the district, and expressed confidence he's the best candidate to flip New Jersey's 2nd District back to the party's hands in 2020. 

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"He [Van Drew] betrayed our community. He had a ‘D’ next to his name, and yes, people knew he was a conservative Democrat,” Cunningham told The Hill in an interview.

“But I think they believe that there is a value system that still would put the folks who voted for him first and that's not what he did when he voted against impeachment,” he added.

Cunningham noted that while Trump won the red-leaning district by 4.6 points in 2016, Van Drew won it in 2018 after voters in the area grew disenchanted with the president’s policies and “conduct.” 

Cunningham said Van Drew's decision to switch parties isn't sitting well with the voters he's spoken with. The first-time congressman formally announced he was joining the GOP just one day after the House passed the two articles of impeachment largely along party lines.

"I ran on a platform that he was a fake Democrat. Not in my wildest dreams did I think he switched parties. So even me, it took me by surprise. I don't really know what to make of it aside from pure political survival," Cunningham also said of Van Drew's party switch. "He's always been a shrewd politician. I think this time he was too shrewd for his own good."

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The district is rated as "lean Republican" by The Cook Political Report.

Cunningham will need to face off against several primary opponents after coming in third during the Democratic contest in 2018, a race that Van Drew won after garnering nearly 60 percent of the votes.

Among the Democratic challengers this year are Atlantic County Freeholder Ashley Bennett, West Wildwood Commissioner John Francis, political science professor Brigid Callahan Harrison, as well as Amy Kennedy, a former teacher and the wife of former Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.).

Cunningham said he feels strong as he prepares to face off against the rest of the field, telling The Hill his upbringing has provided him with a unique prospective on the issues and the district's needs. 

"If you're taken by the mystique of the Kennedys, I'm not your guy. And if you're wanting to enable the machine, we don't have the same priorities," he said. “But if you want someone to represent you who understands the region struggles and who's bringing the most federal experience with a history of results in D.C. on Capitol Hill, I am your choice.” 

Cunningham was raised by a single mother and grew up poor in New Jersey. He went on to graduate from Brown University before receiving his law degree from the University of Texas at Austin and entering the Teach for America program.

“I'm from the poorest county in New Jersey that has the highest teen birth rate, and I'm a product of the system. Throughout my childhood we were impoverished and for half of my high school career, we were homeless,” he said. “And the pain of those years left an indelible mark on me and my desire to do more with my life but also do more of my life to make a difference in the lives of others.”

The New Jersey Democrat said he's played a pivotal role in helping deliver results on bipartisan priorities during his time on Washington, a quality he attributes to learning to work with Republicans while living in the traditionally red state of Texas during law school and his time in Teach for America. 

Cunningham worked first for Sen. Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerPatrick backs reparations in unveiling 'Equity Agenda for Black Americans' Booker ahead of Trump impeachment trial: 'History has its eyes on us' Sunday shows preview: Lawmakers gear up for Senate impeachment trial MORE (D-N.J.) before being brought on as the chief investigator to work under the late-Oversight and Reform Committee Chairman Elijah CummingsElijah Eugene CummingsBaltimore unveils plaques for courthouse to be named after Elijah Cummings GOP leaders encourage retiring lawmakers to give up committee posts Pelosi taps Virginia Democrat for key post on economic panel MORE (D-Md.). 

"I've just received an education of a lifetime and I wouldn't be running if I didn't think I was qualified to do this job on day one for the people of South Jersey," he added. 

-- This story has been updated to reflect that Cunningham spent six years in Capitol Hill.