New Jersey Rep. Jeff Van Drew is fighting for his political life in a tight re-election fight that has turned into a referendum on President Trump in a bellwether Congressional District.

The former Democrat made national headlines in December of last year when he switched parties and became a Republican, pledging his “undying support” for Trump in a televised meeting in the Oval Office. Van Drew had previously made headlines by being one of two Congressional Democrats who voted against impeaching the president.

Van Drew’s party switch has animated Democrats in the district, like Bob McDevitt, president of Unite Here Local 54—the local hospitality workers union in a district that includes Atlantic City’s hotel and casino industry.  

“The day Jeff Van Drew showed his ass and became what he always was, a Republican, there are a lot of angry people,” McDevitt said. “But myself, and the folks at Local 54 are happy that he finally came out of the closet, and now we're able to remove him like the dirty gum on the bottom of a shoe.”

To add to the drama, Van Drew’s Democratic challenger is Amy Kennedy, a local South Jersey advocate who married into the storied political dynasty. She’s a former school teacher and has five children with Patrick Kennedy, the former Rhode Island congressman who’s the son of the late Sen. Ted Kennedy and nephew of JFK. 

The Second Congressional District encompasses the entire southern tip of the state from Atlantic City to Cape May, with a large swath of the rural Pine Barrens and a slice of the Philadelphia suburbs. Van Drew has represented parts of this district at the local, state and federal level for almost 30 years.

Listen to Nancy Solomon's report on the NJ's House race between Jeff Van Drew and Amy Kennedy:

“For Van Drew, the issue is his brand,” said Ben Dworkin, director of the Rowan Institute for Public Policy and Citizenship at Rowan University. “That is what he wants people to remember. This is about Jeff Van Drew. And it doesn't matter whether he has an R or D next to his name, he is still the same Jeff Van Drew, who has been one of the most popular politicians in this area for decades.”

Van Drew was always more conservative than most New Jersey Democrats and had been a popular politician in the swing district. As a state legislator, he voted against gay marriage and raising the minimum wage, and received an A rating from the NRA. 

He was elected to Congress in the “Blue Wave” of the 2018 mid-term election, and voted against the president 90 percent of the time as a Democrat. But at a debate last month, there was virtually no daylight between him and the President. Van Drew gave Trump high marks for his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, and backed the President’s opposition to providing federal funding for fiscally-strained states like New Jersey.

“If the state of New York is completely irresponsible in the way that they fund their budget, the people in New Jersey should not have to pay for that,” Van Drew said.

Despite Van Drew’s long history as a Democrat in the district, Republicans seem happy to have him on their side. Republican State Senator Michael Testa Jr currently holds the seat Van Drew vacated when he was elected to Congress.

“Most Republicans have embraced Congressman Jeff Van Drew, because they realize that he was a conservative voice even when he was with the Democratic Party,” Testa said.

Van Drew has shrugged off the criticism that he switched parties because he would have lost the Democratic primary after voting against impeachment. 

“People voted for me because I'm Jeff Van Drew,” he said at a recent debate. “My whole career has been based upon the fact that I wasn't so concerned about Republicans and Democrats. I was concerned about standing up for South Jersey.” 

Amy Kennedy and Jeff Van Drew on a stage with lecterns during a debate

Congressman Jeff Van Drew and challenger candidate Amy Kennedy during New Jersey's 2nd congressional district debate, at Fannie Lou Hamer Room on the campus of Stockton University in Atlantic City, NJ earlier this month

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Congressman Jeff Van Drew and challenger candidate Amy Kennedy during New Jersey's 2nd congressional district debate, at Fannie Lou Hamer Room on the campus of Stockton University in Atlantic City, NJ earlier this month
Edward Lea Staff Photographer / Press of Atlantic City / AP / Shutterstock

A poll taken the first week of October found Van Drew’s Democratic challenger 5 points ahead, just a tick more than the survey’s margin of error.  But there’s another number that may spell trouble for the Congressman: While Democrats are mad and Republicans have embraced his party switch, 47 percent of independent voters said they were bothered by it, and there are more unaffiliated voters than those registered with either party in the district.  

Kennedy is a local former school teacher and fourth generation south Jersey native. Her parents were both school teachers and her father was a local councilman in Absecon, N.J..  She’s campaigning on bringing jobs to South Jersey, the need for federal relief and protecting the Affordable Care Act.

“We can not, for South Jersey, see so many go uninsured when unemployment is so high right now and people have lost their employer health care,” she said. 

Van Drew’s attack ads follow the Trump campaign’s playbook, painting Kennedy as a left-wing firebrand despite the fact she doesn’t support the Green New Deal, Medicare for All or defunding police. Her opponent’s portrayal of her is something Kennedy raised at a recent debate.

“I would like to be seen as an individual. Maybe look at my policies on my page before slamming me as phony, liberal, elitist, radical,” Kennedy said to Van Drew. “ You know,  all of those things that anyone that went and took a look at the website would say ‘Oh, it really doesn’t seem to fit that school teacher.’ 

Van Drew had a quick retort: “Mrs. Kennedy, respectfully, I don't think you are just that homespun school teacher. You're a little different.” 

Kennedy’s connections to her family and support from the Democratic National Committee to flip the seat have certainly helped her campaign. She has been able to keep pace with the incumbent advantage that members of Congress typically have. Both candidates had raised more than $3 million each by the end of September, according to federal campaign spending records. 

“This is going to be such a tight race. No one is really sure how it's going to all play out,” said Dworkin, the Rowan professor.  “We're going to see more than 10 million dollars spent in this race.”

It’s a strange campaign season, of course, with no door-knocking, no baby hugging, and no rallies. But Angela Bardoe of Vineland, a sign language interpreter, says, even so, Kennedy has marshalled grassroots support that Van Drew didn’t have in 2018.  Bardoe is part of a network of progressive activists, many of them women, who were the force behind the midterm elections in New Jersey when four out of five Republican seats flipped.

“Well, for Amy, I mean, I've never seen anything like it,” Bardoe said. “You know, there are people who've come out of the woodwork in this district that I didn't even know existed.”

For Van Drew, the stakes are clear: one year after taking a gamble and jumping on the Trump bandwagon, his three-decade political career depends on it not ending up in the ditch.