Jeff Van Drew has voted against raising the minimum wage and gay marriage. He often sides with industry on environmental issues and carries an A rating from the NRA. And he’s the odds-on favorite to be New Jersey’s newest Democratic congressman.
In the party’s first real crack at winning the South Jersey-based district held by retiring Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R-N.J.) for more than two decades, Democratic party establishment — at every level — is throwing its collective weight behind Van Drew, leaving local progressives baffled, frustrated and more than a little angry.
The race is a showcase of whether the Democratic Party nationally will tolerate politicians like Van Drew in the name of winning back the majority in the U.S. House for the first time since 2011. It highlights Democrats’ struggles to blend their stated ideals on issues like diversity and gun control with the political realities of a district, in this case a working class bastion which voted for President Donald Trump by four points after twice voting for President Barack Obama.
Nationally, the Democratic Party has seen a surge of progressive activism in the wake of Trump’s election, and New Jersey’s 2nd Congressional District is no exception. So liberal activists, who frequently gathered in front of LoBiondo’s office to demand a town hall meeting that never came, have turned their ire on Democratic leaders.
“It makes me feel a bit insulted and betrayed,” said Alison Arne, an Atlantic County activist who co-chairs the group Actions Together New Jersey Atlantic County.
Two other candidates for the Democratic nomination to replace LoBiondo fit the mold of 2018 Democrats.
Will Cunningham is an openly gay African-American attorney who grew up poor and despite being homeless at one point as a teen, went to an Ivy League university and became an Obama administration official, and an adviser to Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.).
Tanzie Youngblood is an African-American retired teacher and military mom. And Nate Kleinman is a farmer who runs a non-profit and was active in the Occupy movement who was dubbed the first “Occupy candidate” when he sought a House seat in Pennsylvania six years ago.
Democrats spent two decades struggling to recruit viable candidates to run in the district against LoBiondo, who first won the seat in 1994. Now, Van Drew will almost certainly win the primary and is heavily favored to win the seat in November.
“The DCCC needs to take a look at themselves in the mirror and make sure we’re reflective of who we’re sending to D.C.,” Cunningham said of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which has all but officially thrown in with Van Drew after trying for at least a decade to recruit him to run there. “We as the Democratic Party, if we’re going to talk the talk, we’ve got to walk the walk.”
The anger has spilled out into public forums. At one, high school student Emma McGrath confronted Van Drew — who had one day earlier told her class he did not accept donations from the NRA — about a $1,000 donation she had discovered. The videotaped confrontation, in which McGrath said “Senator, you lied,” made headlines around the state.
But don’t look for a nail biter primary like in Illinois, where conservative Democrat Dan Lipinski narrowly survived a primary challenge last month.
The 2nd District, New Jersey’s southernmost and largest geographically, includes Atlantic City’s gleaming casino towers, farmland and the poorest county in the state. It’s more working class than its New Jersey counterparts to the north, with the lowest percentage of college-educated residents in the state. And Van Drew has represented the district’s most Republican portion in the state Senate and Assembly for 16 years, comfortably winning reelection despite several major GOP efforts against him.
To have a Democratic candidate who’s already popular in the most conservative part of the congressional district is like a dream to Democrats more concerned with flipping a Republican House seat than with ideological purity. They point to Conor Lamb, the conservative Democrat who won a deep red House district in Pennsylvania in March.
“I think it’s a lot of the same criticism you heard about that guy,“ said Atlantic County Democratic Chairman Michael Suleiman. “Do you want a guy who’s with you 70 percent of the time? Or do you want a Republican who’s with you 0 percent of the time?”
Meanwhile, there are some hints that Van Drew is moving leftward. Earlier this year, conservative websites pointed out that he quietly withdrew his sponsorship of bills to reinstate the death penalty and require parental notification for abortions.
“Candidly, I’m to the left of Jeff,” Suleiman said. “But I also want to win. Because I’ve been around long enough to know if there’s one thing Democrats are good at, it’s screwing up elections.”
Establishment Democrats stress that Van Drew has voted with the party on bread and butter priorities like paid sick leave and paid family leave.
While Van Drew doesn’t have the kind of voting record that generally plays well in a Democratic primary, he has some things that his challengers lack: Organization and money. He‘s backed by the local Democratic organization in all eight counties in the district, which gives him advantageous placement on the ballot. And the three candidates running to his left threaten to dilute the progressive vote.
Then there’s the issue of money. Before LoBiondo’s retirement announcement, when Youngblood and Sean Thom — who has since dropped out — were the only candidates in the race, DCCC staff helped prep Youngblood for her campaign launch, and she attended its candidate week in October.
But national Democrats were left unimpressed with her anemic fundraising in a district that includes the Philadelphia media market — one of the most expensive in the country. As of the end of last year, Youngblood had only raised about $50,000 — almost half of which came from her own pocket. Van Drew only raised about $80,000, but a campaign source said his next filing will show about $400,000 raised.
Cunningham and Kleinman entered the race after Van Drew.
“Sen. Van Drew has built the strongest Democratic campaign this district has seen in more than two decades,” said DCCC spokeman Evan Lukaske. “In addition to earning the unanimous backing of local Democrats, Van Drew has an unmatched record of service to this community, deep ties to grassroots supporters and a proven ability to win tough races.“
But Arne, the activist, said she felt Democrats didn’t take the opportunity for a pickup in the district seriously until LoBiondo retired. Once that happened, even before Van Drew formally declared his campaign, all of South Jersey’s Democratic Party leaders rallied around him.
“Last year for the 2017 state legislative races, we really stood up and did a lot of work to get the local communities more engaged,” Arne said. “So when they turned it around like this on us, it’s like they didn’t listen and they don’t really care.”