N.J. party-flipper Jeff Van Drew faces growing crowd of 2020 challengers

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Democratic Atlantic County Freeholder Ashley Bennett announces her candidacy for U.S. Congress, vying for the seat in the 2nd District currently held by Jeff Van Drew. Van Drew was elected to his first term in 2018 as a Democrat, but he will run in 2020 as a Republican. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Democratic Atlantic County Freeholder Ashley Bennett announces her candidacy for U.S. Congress, vying for the seat in the 2nd District currently held by Jeff Van Drew. Van Drew was elected to his first term in 2018 as a Democrat, but he will run in 2020 as a Republican. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

A day after South Jersey U.S. Rep. Jeff Van Drew pledged his “undying support” to President Donald Trump while announcing his switch from the Democratic to Republican party, the field of candidates looking to unseat him next year grew even larger.

Atlantic County Freeholder Ashley Bennett — the Democrat who entered politics in 2017 in response to a sexist Facebook post by the man she defeated — said Friday she was joining the race along with at least two other Democrats and three Republicans.

“South Jersey doesn’t need a ‘yes man’ for the president in Congress,” she said during a kickoff event at the Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Pleasantville. “We need someone who is willing to hold him accountable.”

Van Drew’s defection has triggered intense intra-party jockeying and some acrimony.

A collection of South Jersey progressive groups is expected to release a letter Friday criticizing Senate President Steve Sweeney, D-Gloucester County, and six Democratic county chairmen for endorsing political science professor Brigid Callahan Harrison this week before other candidates had a chance to enter the race.

Harrison, meanwhile, went on the offensive Friday over a planned $258,400 ad buy on Van Drew’s behalf by a pro-Trump political action committee. The Committee to Defend the President disclosed the spending on Thursday just hours after Van Drew appeared with Trump in the Oval Office to announce his party switch.

“Much like a prostitute naming a price and having the money put on a bedside table, Congressman Van Drew’s price was exactly $258,000,” Harrison said in an interview. “In my mind, that’s just despicable that you can engage in such an obvious quid pro quo.”

Republican candidates, too, have been critical of Van Drew and have refused to drop out of the race despite Trump endorsing Van Drew for reelection on Thursday.

Candidate David Richter, the former CEO of the Philadelphia-based construction consulting firm Hill International, called the congressman a “weasel” this week, while former Trump administration official Bob Patterson said in an interview that “I’m the true Trump conservative in this race.”

“All the money in the world isn’t going to cover up his liberal voting record and the record that he had in 27 years in elected office throughout South Jersey,” Patterson said.

Other candidates in the race include former Atlantic County Young Republican Chairman Brian Fitzherbert and West Cape May Commissioner John Francis, a Democrat.

The 2nd Congressional District includes all or portions of eight counties in South Jersey. Voters there voted twice for Obama, in 2008 and 2012, before supporting Trump by nearly 5 points in the 2016 election.

Prior to Van Drew’s election last year, the district was represented for 24 years by Republican Frank LoBiondo before he retired.

Van Drew switched parties as internal polls showed his support cratering among Democrats. He was one of two Democrats who voted last month against opening an impeachment inquiry into Trump, and on Wednesday he was one of three Democrats to vote against impeachment.

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