Even with this health and economic crisis swirling, party leaders here in Washington are preparing for November. And the Philadelphia region is going to be the home of some of the fiercest battles in the nation. House Republicans have reserved an initial $6.5 million in TV buys in the Philadelphia market and Democrats locked in $6.1 million worth.
One race that will likely benefit from those dollars features South Jersey Republican U.S. Rep Jeff Van Drew trying to defend a seat that he won as a Democrat.
His district now is coveted by both parties, especially since many feel Van Drew abandoned Democrats during impeachment, and Republicans hope he’s the ticket for keeping the seat in GOP hands.
In December — back when impeachment was the talk of the nation — Van Drew entered the Oval Office a Democrat, but by the time he was sitting next to President Donald Trump and pledged his “undying support” for him, it was obvious he was now a Trump Republican.
That feels like a different time now.
“Now is the time for no partisanship to exist,” Van Drew said while sitting in his congressional office about a month ago.
That was before lawmakers passed the historic more than $2 trillion stimulus package to address the coronavirus pandemic. Since then, partisanship has boiled over. Recently Van Drew’s been holding private calls with administration officials, business leaders, and what was supposed to be a public tele-town hall with his constituents – though WHYY wasn’t allowed on the call.
Van Drew didn’t speak on the House floor in the latest stimulus bill debate. But he recently joined Fox News from his living room, to discuss overhauling U.S. manufacturing in light of the pandemic.
“We need to do better, and the president’s talked about this, about producing and manufacturing right here in the United States of America. I’d love to see it in my district, but wherever it is: We can’t just rely on China for everything. That’s something we’ve really learned,” Van Drew said.
While Van Drew says this should be a bipartisan moment, Trump himself has been beating the partisan drum — lashing out at Democratic governors while supporting quarantine protests in blue states. That’s why one of Van Drew’s potential Democratic opponents, Brigid Callahan Harrison, has been offering nightly rebuttals to Trump’s briefings.
“I think that particularly in this situation it’s imperative that we hold this president and Congressman Van Drew accountable for what he’s saying and what he’s doing,” Callahan Harrison said.
Van Drew may have a big target on his back, but he says he has no regrets about voting against impeachment, switching parties and aligning himself with the president.
“Exactly what has happened to a T — to a letter — is exactly what I said would happen. That if we had impeachment it would create tremendous friction and toxicity in our nation, that it would hurt our nation, that it would hurt even relationships between people in the legislature,” Van Drew said.
The Van Drew campaign has already returned thousands of dollars to Democrats who supported him in the last election cycle, including money to Illinois Democrat Cheri Bustos.
“I have zero desire to help somebody who’s a Republican. He owed it to me. You know, I gave him money as a Democrat representing that district. And he’s, you know, he’s a turncoat,” Bustos said.
Bustos is the chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which is the campaign arm for House Democrats. She says Van Drew’s district is on their target list.
It’s not just national leaders. Local Democrats are also upset with Van Drew, including U.S. Rep. Mikie Sherrill from North Jersey.
“I think there are just a lot of people that work very hard to get them into that seat and I think we’re just disappointed,” Sherrill said.
Still, Van Drew has a new team now and the GOP — from Trump all the way down to rank-and-file Republicans — is all in, because Van Drew is a poster boy for rejecting what some call the “radical socialist turn” of many prominent Democrats these days.
“I think it’s a reflection of just how extreme the left has become,” according to U.S. Rep. David Schweikert of Arizona.
“I can tell you I know the man personally and I think he’s a good man,” said U.S. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick of Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
While Van Drew’s been facing the cold shoulder, eye rolls and constant snickering behind his back amongst Democrats, he says he feels at home in the GOP.
“Republicans have been no problem, they’ve been wonderful,” Van Drew said.
Van Drew says while his votes against impeachment garnered the most attention, he also opposed Democrats over border security, sanctuary cities and what he says is a lack of support for law enforcement. And that’s become a selling point for Van Drew in his new party.
“Actually people are asking me now to speak, even in other states and in other districts, to support them, to help them in their election, because people are very excited about this vision that I have that just came to me more and more through time and over the years,” Van Drew said.
How much or even how soon he’ll be able to go on the road and campaign for other Republicans is unclear. New Jersey’s primary has been pushed back to July. And while thousands of excited supporters turned out in January when Trump held a rally with Van Drew in Wildwood, the political landscape has changed so much since then that it feels like an entirely new election cycle.