Democrats fight it out to challenge top target Van Drew

Democrats fight it out to challenge top target Van Drew
© Greg Nash
South Jersey Democrats are fighting for the chance to take on Democrat-turned-Republican Rep. Jefferson Van Drew in one of the Garden State’s most contentious primaries on Tuesday.

Five candidates are set to compete in the primary, with political pundit and professor Brigid Callahan Harrison and Amy Kennedy, a member of the Kennedy political dynasty, leading the way.

Democrats are eager to defeat Van Drew after he announced that he would oppose President TrumpDonald John TrumpOklahoma City Thunder players kneel during anthem despite threat from GOP state lawmaker Microsoft moving forward with talks to buy TikTok after conversation with Trump Controversial Trump nominee placed in senior role after nomination hearing canceled MORE's impeachment and become a Republican after winning his seat as a Democrat in 2018.

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The Democratic primary, which will be largely by mail, has been heated, with Harrison and Kennedy taking barbs at each other, though strategists also note it hasn't devolved into an all-out brawl.

“This race is kind of the show in Jersey at this point,” said one New Jersey Democratic strategist.

The primary is one of a number of congressional contests being decided in New Jersey on Tuesday.

Van Drew became a top target for Democrats after switching parties in the state's 2nd District, which the Cook Political Report rates as "lean Republican." Trump won it in 2016 by under 5 points. 

Harrison, a political science professor at Montclair State University, decided to challenge Van Drew in December, just three days after the congressman announced he was switching his party affiliation.

She was encouraged to run her first political race after penning an op-ed in The Star-Ledger in November criticizing Van Drew’s decision to oppose impeaching Trump, and she then courted the support of elected officials.
 
“She’s been a professor her whole life, she’s been a political commentator her whole life, so she did pretty much the right thing,” another Democratic strategist said. 

Kennedy announced her bid for the seat shortly after Harrison in January, calling Trump and Van Drew “symptoms of a bigger sickness infecting our country and our politics” in a campaign video. 
 
"Now more than ever, leadership matters. The people of South Jersey are tired of leaders that are only interested in serving themselves," Kennedy told The Hill. "We are ready for change, ready for leaders with integrity, real Democratic values, and a commitment to service. I'm so proud of the work this campaign has done so far, and we're ready for what comes next."

She is the wife of former Rhode Island Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D), who is the son of the late Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy (D).

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“Amy and Patrick have spent a lot of money,” the Democratic strategist said. “Amy has a lot of progressive bona fides. She’s backed by the teachers, she was a teacher, she has institutionalized progressive support through the Working Families Party, and she’s got a pretty good campaign team, so this is definitely going to be a battle for the ages.”

Harrison and Kennedy will also face three other competitors in the race, including former staffer to Sen. Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerOVERNIGHT ENERGY: EPA rule extends life of toxic coal ash ponds | Flint class action suit against Mich. officials can proceed, court rules | Senate Democrats introduce environmental justice bill Senate Democrats introduce environmental justice bill Overnight Defense: Guardsman to testify Lafayette Square clearing was 'unprovoked escalation' | Dems push for controversial Pentagon nominee to withdraw | Watchdog says Pentagon not considering climate change risks to contractors MORE (D-N.J.) and progressive activist Will Cunningham, environmental activist John Francis III and retired FBI agent Robert Turkavage.

While polling has been scarce in the race, the fundraising battle heated up between Harrison and Kennedy. Harrison raised $415,000 for her campaign, contributing $160,000 of her own money to the sum. Meanwhile, Kennedy raised $1.4 million and self-funded $500,000 of it. Both candidates have received support from outside groups.

Cunningham, who challenged Van Drew in 2018 before he switched parties, raised $155,000 in 2020.

Harrison and Kennedy have taken shots at each other, with Harrison saying Kennedy is looking to capitalize on her last name.
 
Meanwhile, Kennedy has sought to hit Harrison over her high-profile endorsements, calling the professor beholden to New Jersey power brokers.

Both candidates have sought big-name endorsements.

Kennedy has the support of New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D) and House Majority Leader Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerThe Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - Fauci gives his COVID-19 vaccine estimate Congress rightfully rejects dangerous effort to cut defense budget by 10 percent GOP hunts for 'Plan B' as coronavirus talks hit wall MORE (D-Md.), while Harrison has the backing of Booker and fellow New Jersey Sen. Bob MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezVOA visa decision could hobble Venezuela coverage Bottom line Koch-backed group urges Senate to oppose 'bailouts' of states in new ads MORE (D), along with state Senate President Steve Sweeney (D) and New Jersey political powerbroker George Norcross.

Booker, who is up for reelection in 2020, went as far as to pull himself off the party line in Atlantic County after the county’s Democrats voted to award Kennedy with the party line in March. Atlantic County made up roughly 41 percent of the votes cast in the 2018 Democratic congressional primary, making it a critical prize. New Jersey is the only state to use the party line system, in which a county party decides who will be on the first line of the party ballot. 

“If his [Booker] pull is enough to get enough votes away from Amy’s support, then Brigid will most likely win the election,” another Democratic strategist told The Hill.

The endorsements, in particular, have drawn attention to the divided Democratic Party in the Garden State. Norcross and Sweeney are among Murphy’s political rivals.

“Murphy came out and endorsed Kennedy, which I think surprised a lot of people,” the New Jersey Democratic strategist said. “I think it helped to crystalize what is this rift in the Democratic Party in the state.”

“There’s this sort of underlying perception that Sweeney and Norcross worked well with [former Republican Gov. Chris] Christie for eight years, and they have not worked very well with Murphy at all,” the strategist added.

The state’s divided Democratic Party has worried many within its ranks that Van Drew will be able to capitalize on the rift, given his more than two-decade career as a Democrat and his connections with those in the party.

Van Drew is set to face fellow Republican Bob Patterson in the state’s GOP primary on Tuesday, but is expected to win handedly.

A general election with Van Drew will not necessarily be easy for the winner of the Democratic primary. On top of being an incumbent, the former Democrat has brought in $2.5 million and had $1.1 million left in the bank as of June 17. 

“I do not believe anybody who is labeled as a progressive is going to win that district,” the Democratic strategist said. “Now you can have progressive policies, but if you identify out and out as the progressive candidate, it’s a non-starter.”