Leave it to NBC’s Chuck Todd, reliable font of conventional wisdom, to blame the Democratic Party for impeachment opponent Jeff Van Drew’s decision to betray his supposed ideological principles and become a Republican on the eve of the historic House impeachment vote this week.
“Think of this, you have a Democratic member of Congress who’s now going to switch parties, and it may be simply because he couldn’t politically survive in the Democratic Party by opposing impeachment. What does that tell you?” Todd asked on Meet the Press Sunday morning. “Should the Democratic Party be a big enough tent that you can vote against impeachment and stay a good-standing member of the Democratic party, or not?” On Monday, CNN’s Chris Cillizza proclaimed Van Drew’s defection “a godsend for Donald Trump,” proving “Democrats are so dead-set on impeachment that it’s driving moderates right out of the party.”
Texas Senator Ted Cruz taunted Nancy Pelosi on Twitter: “Hmm. Not sure, when Pelosi began this partisan show trial, that she envisioned it being so bad that it would drive House Dems—from New Jersey, no less—to switch parties.”
But nobody’s driving Van Drew out of the Democratic Party—except himself, and his own cowardice. Since he voted against opening an impeachment inquiry, his support in his district has cratered; while he won 55 percent of the primary vote last year; a recent poll found only 24 percent of Democratic primary voters said Van Drew deserves to be reelected to Congress. Seven of his aides have resigned so far, making this statement: “Sadly, Congressman Van Drew’s decision to join the ranks of the Republican Party led by Donald Trump does not align with the values we brought to this job when we joined his office.”
The great Stephen Colbert had the perfect reaction: “Two-part question. Why are you switching to the Republican Party, and why is there a Klan rally in your pocket?”
Van Drew isn’t being driven away by Democratic bullies but by small-d democracy. And that’s great.
Right now, there are at least four women considering running in the Democratic primary, whatever Van Drew ultimately decides. That makes sense, since Van Drew’s suburban and exurban district is exactly the kind of place that, thanks to female voters and activists, has been trending Democratic since Trump’s election.
Progressive Ashley Bennett, who in 2017 defeated the Atlantic County GOP freeholder who mocked the Women’s March (on Facebook he asked, “Will the woman’s protest be over in time for them to cook dinner?”), told The Nation she will declare her candidacy in a Friday press conference. She considers Van Drew’s opposition to impeachment a betrayal of his constituents, since he represents Atlantic City, “and there are literally people in his district who’ve been stiffed by Trump!” Brigid Callahan Harrison, a Monmouth University political science professor with ties to some of the establishment Democrats who backed Van Drew, declared her candidacy Monday. Van Drew’s 2018 primary challenger, Tanzie Youngblood, is said to be considering a run, as is local educator Amy Kennedy, the wife of former representative Patrick Kennedy. There will likely be others. “We’re definitely excited that women are stepping up to take this seat and hold Trump accountable, unlike Jeff Van Drew,” Emily’s List press secretary Miriam Cash told me.
Progressives think Van Drew’s move offers a chance to elect a real Democrat in New Jersey’s second district—although they also worry about splitting the progressive vote, and letting someone with ties to longtime South Jersey Democratic boss George Norcross take the seat again.
Already, Van Drew’s defection is triggering a progressive backlash against Norcross and his conserva-Dem allies, who strongly backed Van Drew. “The Norcross political machine has a long history of cutting deals with Republicans and opposing progressive policies, so it’s fitting that one of its most prominent members has now taken the next logical step and actually joined the Republican Party,” state party committee chair John Currie declared over the weekend. Norcross, an insurance industry leader and actual Mar-a-Lago member, has come under fire for his use of tax breaks targeting his blighted Camden base; of $1.6 billion in tax breaks awarded there, $1.1 billion went to Norcross-affiliated organizations, according to an analysis by ProPublica and WNYC.
“Southern New Jersey is an area where a long-standing patronage-oriented Democratic Party machine coincides with very high levels of per capita post-2016 grassroots engagement (as measured by things like the frequency of protests, the per capita rate of new ‘Indivisible’-linked group formation, and so on),” says resistance scholar and University of Pittsburgh professor Lara Putnam. Still, Norcross-backed candidates mostly trounced progressives in South Jersey local primary elections this year, while Republicans took Van Drew’s old state Senate seat. It will be no easy task for insurgents to win Van Drew’s seat, especially if they field multiple challengers in the primary.
Yet Van Drew’s double-cross is inspiring progressives in his district, says Helen Duda, a New Jersey Indivisible activist. She’s helping organize one of the hundreds of pro-impeachment demonstrations all across the country Tuesday night, this one outside Van Drew’s district office, work that began before he announced his party switch (which is still not official, by the way). “His announcement has angered even more Democrats,” Duda says; as of Tuesday morning 450 people had RSVP’d to attend the protest.
“Major waves of new political engagement have repercussions that can look, with the benefit of hindsight, like a slow-motion earthquake,” Putnam warns.
Across the aisle, there are multiple GOP candidates in the race for Van Drew’s seat, and they haven’t appreciated their new colleague’s switching sides. Apparently, Van Drew thinks Trump will help him clear the field, but he can’t count on that, given Trump’s notorious loyalty to one person only: himself.
Meanwhile, as I write on Tuesday morning, dozens of first-term Democrats in red and purple districts, from Kansas to Utah to South Carolina, are courageously coming out for impeachment. Minnesota’s Collin Peterson, the only other Democrat besides Van Drew to vote against the impeachment inquiry, hasn’t yet stated how he’ll vote this week. But he did make clear that like Van Drew, he’s been approached by Republicans to switch parties—“and I told them no.” Peterson’s fortitude proves that Democrats aren’t purging impeachment skeptics. Van Drew just didn’t have the guts to sell his position to the people he represents.
Editor’s Note: This piece initially claimed that Ashley Bennett represents Atlantic City. She does not.