WILDWOOD, N.J. – Prompted by President Donald Trump, the cheers for freshly minted Republican Rep. Jeff Van Drew at a rally here Tuesday night were deafening. It appeared certain that the thousands who had come to see the president were fully embracing Van Drew, who is up for a second term in November.
But outside the 7,500-seat Wildwood Convention Center, some Republican voters remained skeptical of Van Drew’s conservative bona fides. Yes, he had switched parties after winning a South Jersey seat in Congress as a Democrat in 2018. Yes, he had pledged his “undying loyalty” to Trump. And yes, he had voted against the impeachment inquiry that Trump has derided as a “hoax.”
Still, he used to be a Democrat. And in a voicemail left for a constituent just weeks before switching parties, Van Drew said he wouldn’t support Trump and wouldn’t vote for him, according to a report by The Philadelphia Inquirer.
“He just switched, and I want to know what his agenda is moving forward as a Republican,” Torsten Denke said. “Trump’s endorsement helps, but I want to see what his agenda is.”
Denke, a former Democrat himself, said he’s willing to hear Van Drew out.
“People change, they change their views,” he said. “I changed my views. I was a Democrat years ago and voted for [Barack] Obama the first time around, but the party went in a different direction.”
Longtime Republican Marilyn Vetter said she appreciated Van Drew’s vote against impeaching the president over his dealings with Ukraine but wants to see him express GOP values on other issues, like immigration and taxes.
“We know he voted right on [impeachment],” she said, but “it’s not like he’s a committed Republican.”
Other voters said Trump’s endorsement of Van Drew and his willingness to travel to South Jersey to back him is enough to win their support.
“If Trump hadn’t endorsed him, I would have thought twice about whether or not I was going to vote for him – even despite the party change,” Melanie Collette said.
Michael Terrigno, the Republican mayor of nearby Deerfield Township, said he’s known Van Drew for years — the congressman represented the region in the state Legislature from 2002 until he won an open, GOP-held House seat in 2018. Van Drew, the mayor said, “seems to have come around and understands what needs to be done.”
“You’ll never know what someone truly believes,” Terrigno said. “But if the president supports him, then I’ll support the president.”
Even those well aware of Van Drew’s record in Congress — he only backed Trump 13 percent of the time in 2019, according to CQ Vote Watch — said they’re likely to back him.
“I was a little leery in the beginning, but I think he lines up with what we’re all saying,” Angel Coia said. “I know he voted with [Speaker Nancy Pelosi] many times, but I feel he aligns with Republicans on so many different issues.”
‘Guts’ to defy left wing
Inside Tuesday’s rally, Trump seemed unconcerned with Van Drew’s past and spun his party switch as a victory for Republicans. He said Van Drew was part of a Democratic “exodus” and called him “a courageous leader who left because he’s had enough of their extremism.”
“Jeff had the guts to defy the left-wing fanatics in his own party,” Trump said.
Local Democrats, many who feel spurned by Van Drew’s party switch after they supported him in 2018, held a protest a few blocks from the rally. In attendance was Amy Kennedy, one of the Democrats vying for the nomination to challenge Van Drew in the 2nd District. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the race Tilts Republican.
“As a member of Congress, I’ll never pledge my ‘undying support’ to another politician,” Kennedy tweeted during the rally. “I’ll always stand up and fight for the families and values that make South Jersey such a special place.”
Trump urged the crowd to back Van Drew in the June 2 primary, where he faces Bob Patterson, a businessman who served in the Social Security Administration and unsuccessfully challenged Democrat Donald Norcross in the 1st District in 2016.
In a Wall Street Journal op-ed the day before the rally, Patterson questioned Van Drew’s loyalty, suggesting that he was nervous about polling that showed he might lose reelection as a Democrat. Patterson, who opposes abortion, also noted Van Drew’s 100 percent rating from Planned Parenthood.
“The man who now embraces Mr. Trump voted against the president’s signature policies, including funding the border wall, repealing Obamacare and leaving the Paris climate agreement,” Patterson wrote. “Even if Mr. Van Drew’s switch is sincere, he is the most liberal member of the Republican caucus.”
District backed Obama
Still, some view Van Drew’s party switch as a positive and don’t believe it should hurt his chances in the June primary. Before he won the seat in 2018, it had been represented for 12 terms by Republican Frank A. LoBiondo, who kept winning even as the district backed Obama for president in 2008 and 2012.
Linda DuBois, who chairs the Salem County Republican Party, said she’d be surprised if Van Drew didn’t bring other disaffected Democrats with him.
“This was not a hard sell for me,” she said. “I think he’s going to be a very positive asset for us. It lets people know we’re moving forward.”
Look no further than Van Drew’s ability to bring Trump to southern New Jersey, Dubois said, where local Republicans have long felt slighted by the national party because of the state’s Democratic dominance. Older supporters said the spirit of Tuesday night reminded them of a speech President Ronald Reagan gave in nearby Hammonton in 1984.
“It’s a wonderful thing to have our president come in support of Van Drew,” said Joe O’Donoghue, who is running for sheriff in Atlantic County, just up the Garden State Parkway from Wildwood. “We’ve been ignored and what this means to us is that we’re finally getting the recognition we justly deserve.”