Amy Kennedy to challenge party-switcher Van Drew in New Jersey

Congressman’s jump to GOP affected primary in neighboring 3rd District

New Jersey Rep. Jeff Van Drew switched to the GOP in December after opposing President Donald Trump’s impeachment. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
New Jersey Rep. Jeff Van Drew switched to the GOP in December after opposing President Donald Trump’s impeachment. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted July 7, 2020 at 9:38pm

Educator and mental health advocate Amy Kennedy has won the Democratic nomination to challenge Rep. Jeff Van Drew, who flipped New Jersey’s 2nd District for the Democrats in 2018 but switched parties because he did not think President Donald Trump should be impeached. 

With an estimated 30 percent of the vote in, Kennedy was leading a five-candidate field with 55 percent of the vote when The Associated Press called the race for the South Jersey seat.

“Seven months ago, when Jeff Van Drew abandoned the people of South Jersey and pledged his undying support to Donald Trump, I knew I wanted to step up and do something,” Kennedy told socially distanced supporters, including Gov. Phil Murphy, shortly after 10 p.m. “And since he became a Republican, he’s chosen time and time again to serve Donald Trump instead of serving his community.”

Her chief rival, political science professor Brigid Callahan Harrison, who trailed with 32 percent, conceded before the AP’s call, saying in a YouTube video that Democrats needed to unite.

“Amy Kennedy is the choice of the Democratic Party,” Harrison said in her concession video, “and each of us have the responsibility to get involved and help her in any way we can.”

In the Republican primary, Van Drew was leading challenger Robert Patterson 81 percent to 19 percent, when the AP called the race, with an estimated 36 percent of the vote counted.

Van Drew’s switch to the GOP also led the Republican who had been originally challenging him, David Richter, to run in the neighboring 3rd District, where he was battling Kate Gibbs for the GOP nomination to take on freshman Democrat Andy Kim.

New Jersey voted almost exclusively by mail because of the coronavirus pandemic, and complete vote tallies were expected to take up to a week since ballots mailed by 8 p.m. Tuesday would still be counted if received by July 14.

Kennedy, the education director of The Kennedy Forum, said in her announcement video she would draw on her decade of teaching public school in New Jersey and her experience as a mother of five to address the addiction and mental health crises. 

Kennedy grew up in South Jersey, the daughter of former Atlantic County Freeholder Jerry Savell. But it was another family connection — her marriage into the Kennedy political dynasty — that attracted the most attention during her primary campaign.

Kennedy’s husband is former Rhode Island Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy, the youngest son of the late Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, and brought formidable financial resources to the race. She self-funded $500,000 of the $1.4 million she raised as of June 17 and had $236,000 left in the bank. She also benefited from two single-candidate PACs that spent a combined $128,000 supporting her and opposing Harrison.

Harrison had begun sounding out New Jersey Democratic leaders about a primary challenge to Van Drew when it became clear last year that he would vote against impeachment. For a time, Harrison had a clear path to the nomination, with backing from county party leaders in the district that ensured she would have prime placement on the ballot because of New Jersey’s practice of “bracketing” candidates.

After Van Drew jumped to the GOP in December, and drew an endorsement from Trump, Kennedy announced her bid in January. She pitched herself as a more progressive outsider running against the New Jersey political machine, in spite of her family name.

Kennedy was endorsed by Murphy, who as governor has battled with some of the South Jersey party leaders backing Harrison. She also had the support of Atlantic City party boss Craig Calloway, a former city councilman known for his massive mail-in ballot operations. With his blessing, she won the endorsement of the Atlantic County Democratic Committee, giving her the preferential ballot placement in the district’s most populous county. Calloway has spent 42 months in prison for bribery and blackmail, which Harrison pointed out.

Harrison said her moderate positions were better suited to the district, which Trump carried by 5 points in 2016. Harrison self-funded $160,000 of the $415,000 she raised through June 17 and had spent all but $10,0000. She also benefited from $210,000 in outside spending from a group called the General Majority PAC, which only supported her campaign.

Until Van Drew won an open-seat race in 2018, the 2nd District had been represented for 12 terms by Republican Rep. Frank A. LoBiondo. Before voting for Trump, district voters twice backed President Barack Obama.

Van Drew begins the general election with a financial edge over Kennedy. He had raised $2.5 million as of June 17 and had $1.1 million in his campaign account.

Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the race Tilt Republican.