To many South Jersey Democrats, U.S. Rep. Jeff Van Drew didn’t just switch parties from Democrat to Republican.
Amy Kennedy, a former teacher, said Van Drew “really betrayed the people of South Jersey when he pledged his undying support to Donald Trump.”
Van Drew, who was elected to Congress as a Democrat in 2018, announced he would change parties in December 2019 after saying he would oppose impeaching President Donald Trump.
In doing so, Brigid Callahan Harrison, a well-known political science professor at Montclair State University, said Van Drew not only let down his constituents; he also “let down our democracy.”
“He put his own political career above the Constitution of the United States,” she said, “which in my mind is unforgivable.”
The party flip is personal for longtime congressional staffer Will Cunningham. Van Drew has been his representative since Cunningham was in high school; first as assemblyman, then state senator, now congressman.
“I’ve had family members who have personally worked or volunteer in his campaign throughout the years,” he said. “So it’s a deep personal betrayal.”
That’s why these three are running to make Van Drew a one-term congressman in one of the most closely watched races in New Jersey’s primary election Tuesday. The winner of the 2nd District race will face their one-time party mate and current incumbent, who will have Trump’s support in November.
The heart-shaped district covers the southern end of the state from the bottom of Burlington County down to the tip of Cape May. Voters there elected Trump in 2016 after voting for President Barack Obama twice.
Cunningham is running as a self-proclaimed progressive in this moderate swing district. He says both his life and work experience make him the most qualified to bring change.
“I think those closest to the pain have to be closest to the power,” he said. “When I talk about being close to the pain, for me, it’s just knowing the struggle of this community.”
The pain he refers to is being born in Vineland to a single teenage mother, who has worked hourly jobs her whole life. He said they experienced homelessness for two years when Cunningham was in high school.
He graduated from Brown University and University of Texas Law School, has worked as a congressional staffer, and ran against Van Drew in the 2018 Democratic primary.
Meanwhile, Harrison boasts of the bridges she’s built during her campaign across unions, progressive groups and establishment leaders to take on Van Drew.
“In order to defeat him, we need a broad coalition that is inclusive,” she said, “bringing everyone to the table using all of the diverse resources within the district.”
Kennedy says she brings yet another viewpoint to the race.
“For me, to bring the perspective of a schoolteacher, of a mother, of someone who has committed to raising my family here is so important,” she said. “When it comes to leadership and the tone we hope to set, I think it’s about civility.”
The candidates share similar views on issues like police reform and boosting the South Jersey economy. To distinguish themselves, they’ll need name recognition among Democratic voters in the district in a primary expected to be an overwhelmingly vote-by-mail contest, given the COVID-19 pandemic.
While Kennedy has the backing of Gov. Phil Murphy, as well as Democrats in Atlantic City and Atlantic County, Harrison has most of the South Jersey establishment behind her, along with U.S. Sens. Bob Menendez and Cory Booker.
Cunningham, a one-time Booker staffer, has been endorsed by several progressive groups including Democracy for America.
He says party leaders aren’t supporting his campaign because he does not have the same privileges as his opponents.
“These people come from power and privilege,” he said, “it is time that power and privilege not be the reason someone is bestowed a congressional seat.”
His opponents disagree.
Harrison says she was the youngest of seven children and while she respects Cunningham’s success and his humble beginnings, she added “I didn’t get a free ride to Brown University.”
“I worked as a bus greeter at the Tropicana Hotel and Casino; greeting buses 40 hours a week while I paid by way through a state university,” she said.
Kennedy acknowledges the privileges and access to political power that has come from being married to former U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy from Rhode Island, son of the late Mass. U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy. But she insists her roots in the 2nd District go deep.
“I did grow up here as the daughter of two public school teachers,” she said. “I worked as a waitress, I went to school here in Absecon and Pleasantville in South Jersey.”
According to the latest filings from the Federal Elections Commission, Kennedy has the most cash on hand with $236,003.93. She raised $900,000 and loaned her campaign $500,000. Harrison has raised $255,600.69 and loaned her campaign $160,000. She currently has $9,776.87 on hand. Cunningham is the only candidate to not loan his campaign money. He raised $153,760.30 and has $55,773.72 on hand.
Also on the Democratic ballot is John Francis III, an environmental activist and commissioner in West Cape May, and former FBI agent Robert Turkavage. Turkavage ran for the seat in 2018 as a Republican, and changed parties in December.
Van Drew is widely expected to win Tuesday’s Republican primary against Robert Patterson, a former Social Security Administration official and George W. Bush speech writer. Another challenger, David Richter opted to run for the 3rd District seat when Van Drew changed parties with the full backing of Trump and the GOP.
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