agents of change

Why New Jersey Congressman Jeff Van Drew Ditched the Democrats and Sided With Trump

Representative Jeff Van Drew paid a visit to the White House. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Jeff Van Drew panicked.

Last week, the first-term conservative Democrat polled his district about his opposition to impeachment. The results were very one-sided. Over 70 percent of Democratic primary voters would be less likely to support him if he voted against impeaching Donald Trump.

Van Drew immediately went silent and was unreachable by allies in the party. The next day, he was meeting with Donald Trump at the White House to discuss switching parties. Within 48 hours, word had leaked out about his decision and, within a week, Van Drew was on cable news pledging his “undying support” to a president whom he voted against 93 percent of the time.

A longtime state senator from South Jersey with a reputation for being a “right-leaning moderate” in Trenton, Van Drew “was used to getting some backlash from members of his own party who didn’t think he was sufficiently liberal,” said one New Jersey operative who worked with him in the past. But the operative said “this whole process started happening” when Van Drew became one of two Democrats to vote against opening the impeachment inquiry on October 31. Advisers had urged Van Drew to vote yes to keep his options open, but the New Jersey representative barged ahead.

The initial vote against opening the inquiry came as a particular shock to local Democrats only days before state legislative elections in New Jersey. “People were freaking out,” said Michael Suleiman, the chair of the Atlantic County Democratic Committee.

Van Drew offered a variety of reasons for opposing impeachment. Sometimes he argued the process was ill-advised with an election less than a year away. On other occasions, he said that he didn’t see enough evidence to convict Trump.

One well-connected South Jersey Democrat told New York, “He never really had a rationale that was consistent. You need to have your own narrative. Not a Republican-lite narrative, but a Jeff Van Drew narrative.” However, the New Jersey operative noted that Van Drew did not seem to view his opposition to impeachment as being “pro-Trump at first,” but simply an effort to be reflective of his district. And then “he started spiraling.”

Van Drew was elected to Congress in 2018 in a relatively easy race after a longtime Republican incumbent decided not to seek reelection. Trump had won the district in 2016, but Barack Obama won twice before.

Matt Gorman, a Republican operative who was the spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee in 2018, told New York that even though he considered the district “to be very much a Republican seat, Van Drew was really helped in 2018 by his name ID” from his long state legislative service. Further, Van Drew’s opponent had alienated national Republicans with a series of controversial comments.

Despite the comparatively easy victory, Van Drew felt bruised that his victory was not by the margins he was accustomed to in his past legislative wins, according to the South Jersey Democrat even though federal races are far more partisan than state-level races.

The result prompted Van Drew to go back to his playbook from his days in Trenton and try to demonstrate his bipartisan credentials. There was an immediate hiccup in this plan, though, when Van Drew cast his first vote on Capitol Hill. He had pledged not to vote for Nancy Pelosi as Speaker, but instead of supporting an alternative candidate, he tried to simply vote no. There was no such option under House rules.

If he couldn’t come up with another choice, it was suggested by advisers that he just follow the lead of Mikie Sherrill, a fellow Democratic freshman from New Jersey who was alphabetically ahead of him on the roll call, and support whomever she voted for. His response to that advice was, “What are you going to do to stop me?” Van Drew voted no to awkward murmurs, and it was eventually recorded as present.

This impulse to buck party discipline exerted itself again in the debate over impeachment. Although the New Jersey operative described Van Drew as very attentive to polls in the state legislature, the congressman had long been reluctant to actually put a poll in the field on impeachment. It was suggested that he knew the data “would put him in a box” and he was afraid to see it. When he finally commissioned a poll, in conjunction with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, he “genuinely freaked out” when he saw the results.

From that moment, it was only several days before Van Drew defected to the GOP. Former White House political director Bill Stepien and former New Jersey governor Chris Christie tried to clear a path for the congressman among Republicans in the Garden State. Kellyanne Conway, who was the only White House staffer present for Van Drew’s meeting with Trump, played a vital role as well.

Van Drew was the first member of Congress to switch parties in almost a decade. The last one to do so, Parker Griffith, a one-term congressman from Alabama who switched from Democrat to Republican in 2009, told New York, “Ordinarily, it’s a mistake to switch parties. I made a mistake by switching parties. The mistake I made — I made an assumption that everybody knew as much about politics as we did in D.C., and it really is an emotional decision.”

Griffith was skeptical of Van Drew’s choice. “I hope he’s got a better handle on what he’s doing than I did.” The former congressman compared Van Drew’s Oval Office handshake with Trump to “fondling a rattlesnake.” He added, “I’m sure it made him feel good temporarily, but I don’t think Trump makes friends well, and doesn’t keep them well.”

Van Drew now faces a number of political obstacles. As Suleiman told New York, he is “now persona non grata with Democrats.” The local county chair, who had been fiercely critical of Van Drew’s stance on impeachment before his defection, said, “No one likes a weasel, and no one likes a turncoat.” Already, several Democrats are running for the party’s nomination in 2020. Brigid Callahan Harrison, a political-science professor at Montclair State University, is currently considered the favorite.

Although Van Drew has been endorsed by Trump both in the Oval Office and on Twitter, he still faces challenges in his quest to be the Republican nominee in 2020. Despite Trump’s endorsement, conservative primary voters may recoil at Van Drew’s long history as a Democrat, including a 100 percent rating from Planned Parenthood. Dave Richter, a self-funding businessman, has begun to seek the Republican nomination in the district and is capable of tapping his own wealth for his campaign. Trump, though, is expected to hold a rally in Van Drew’s district in the coming weeks to bolster the New Jersey congressman’s standing in his new political party.

Griffith, who eventually returned to the Democratic Party after losing his primary as a newly minted Republican in 2010, noted the personal cost that Van Drew could face as well.

“He’s alienated a lot of people who put their faith in him,” said Griffith. Reflecting on his own experience, the former Alabama congressman said, “When you look in the faces of people you disappoint, and the tears in their eyes, and to this day it breaks my heart to think about it.”

The hope for Van Drew is that his embrace of Trump will help convince voters that his party switch was motivated by a crisis of conscience, rather than a crisis of polling, and ease any bitterness. But it is a big risk for the freshman congressman who represents Atlantic City — a community that’s had bad experiences betting on Trump in the past.

Why Jeff Van Drew Ditched the Democrats and Sided With Trump