Through nearly 30 years as a mayor, county freeholder and state lawmaker, Jeff Van Drew has always been a Democrat.
Now a first-term congressman representing a South Jersey swing district, Van Drew’s bombshell decision to become a Republican was met Monday with a mix of bitterness and receptiveness from voters who have supported him for decades.
News of the switch, which Van Drew is yet to formally announce, came shortly after the congressman said he would oppose impeaching President Trump in a vote expected this week.
For Democratic-leaning voter Pary Tell, Van Drew’s stance on impeachment is not the problem as much as his decision to join a party she said espouses “white racism” and won’t address climate change.
“To flip yourself over to those guys is just a big betrayal to me when I’ve supported him all his life,” Tell said. “He claimed he was going to Washington to try to bring the two sides together, and instead he’s sided with the most divisive president we’ve had in our entire history.”
Tell spoke on her way out of a Wawa in Dennis Township, the town where Van Drew lives and started his political career. Almost everyone there could recount a personal interaction with the congressman that has earned him support from voters across the political spectrum.
Republican Dan Scull said he attended summer barbecues at the congressman’s house and even Van Drew fundraisers. Van Drew always had his vote in the past, Scull said, and that won’t change.
“He cares about people and he calls everybody back,” Scull said. “No matter what time of day, he calls everybody back.”
Another Dennis resident — a woman who declined to give her name — said she was a Democrat considering changing parties along with Van Drew.
“His views, seems to me, are the same views that I am having regarding this impeachment process,” she said, adding of Congress: “I just think they are making all of us look bad. It’s not just one party or the other. It’s making the whole country look bad.”
But despite their personal histories with Van Drew, some shoppers said they would have trouble trusting a man who abandoned his party.
“I’m not necessarily in favor of the impeachment process,” said Wally Osborn, an independent voter from Tuckahoe. “I just don’t like the flip-flopping. It seemed to be … a move out of desperation.”
Indeed, Van Drew has become increasingly isolated within the Democratic Party since he was one of only two House Democrats who voted last month against an impeachment inquiry into President Trump.
Establishment and progressive Democrats alike were upset with the vote. Polling, commissioned by his campaign earlier this month, showed his approval rating sinking with Democratic voters in his district, according to reports.
As his prospects for winning a Democratic primary next year dimmed, Van Drew was wooed by Republican figures including Trump and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, POLITICO reported Monday. Their message included a threat, the outlet reported: If you don’t switch parties, Republicans “were going to beat you anyway.”
Trump won Van Drew’s district by nearly 5 points in 2016 after voters there backed Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. As a state lawmaker, Van Drew had been a relatively conservative Democrat. He voted against gay marriage, increasing the minimum wage and numerous gun control measures.
Van Drew may still face a battle for the GOP nomination as several Republicans who have been angling for his seat show no signs of backing down.
In an interview with The New York Times, David Richter, a Republican businessman who has been campaigning since August, called Van Drew a “weasel.”
New Jersey Democrats, meanwhile, are furious. “He’s putting politics over the Constitution … and he’s cutting and running,” Gov. Phil Murphy said on CNN.
Brigid Harrison, a political science professor at Montclair State University, announced Monday she would run as a Democrat to replace Van Drew. Other Democrats are expected to enter the race in the coming weeks.