- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 28, 2020

WILDWOOD, N.J. — Rep. Jeff Van Drew embraced President Trump’s endorsement in front of a raucous Jersey crowd late Tuesday, sealing his decision to desert Democrats in a red-splashed part of this reliably blue state.

Mr. Trump said Mr. Van Drew’s decision to join the GOP because of impeachment proves the Ukraine charges against him are bogus and will cost his rivals in 2020 races up and down the ballot.

“He has had enough of their extremism, enough of their socialism and enough of their vile hoaxes,” he told thousands of supporters at the Wildwoods Convention Center. “He’s a brave guy. He just said, ‘I’m not doing it.’”

Mr. Van Drew’s decision to defect from the Democratic Party shocked his own aides and scrambled the GOP primary in this southern New Jersey district, with one Republican dropping out and another deciding to run in a neighboring district.

Mr. Van Drew, a 66-year-old dentist, represents the southernmost counties of New Jersey in a 2nd congressional district that stretches from Pennsylvania to the Atlantic Coast.

Mr. Trump bested Hillary Clinton in the district by nearly 5 points in 2016 and a Republican — Frank LoBiondo — held the House seat for over two decades before deciding to retire after the 2018 mid-terms.

Mr. Van Drew helped Democrats retake the seat— and the House majority — in the last election. But on Tuesday, he flew into his district aboard Mr. Trump’s Air Force One.

“Our president has made it clear by restoring our military, protecting our economy and by not allowing any other nation to take advantage of us again. Do we want to keep it that way?” Mr. Van Drew told the crowd.

Mr. Van Drew had pledged his “undying support” to the president during an Oval Office visit in late December, one day after becoming one of only three House Democrats to vote against one or both articles of impeachment.

“I believe that this is just a better fit for me,” Mr. Van Drew said of his switch. “This is who I am.”

Mr. Van Drew’s decision roiled Capitol Hill and caused his senior aides to resign en masse, though he’s actually the second lawmaker to defect from his party this Congress.

Republican congressman Justin Amash, a former House Freedom Caucus member, backed impeachment over the summer and became the House’s only independent.

The ongoing impeachment battle loomed over Mr. Trump’s rally in Cape May County.

“I’ve had the best polls I’ve had since being elected,” Mr. Trump said.

Mr. Trump’s rally in a seaside resort town is a bit of an outlier. Typically he stops in hard-scrabble places in the heartland — notably critical swing states he’ll need to win a second term — though he did boost Republican congressman Mike Bost in southern Illinois ahead of the 2018 mid-terms.

Visiting another red-tinted slice of a blue state, Mr. Trump said Mr. Van Drew will be rewarded for his “courage” in November.

“What he did was incredible,” Mr. Trump said. “He’s gonna have a big victory.”

His blessing has made Mr. Van Drew the clear frontrunner in this year’s GOP primary, even though the congressman endorsed Sen. Cory Booker for president and voted with House Democrats most of the time.

“With this rally, the message to Republicans is clear: If the president doesn’t care about Van Drew’s record of voting with Democrats like Speaker Nancy Pelosi in the past, then neither should anyone else,” said Benjamin A. Dworkin, director of Rowan University’s Institute for Public Policy & Citizenship. “When the president throws his arm around Van Drew in front of thousands of cheering supporters, it washes away a lot of history.”

David Richter, a strong Republican contender in the 2nd congressional district race, decided not to buck Mr. Trump and will now enter the GOP primary to take on Democratic Rep. Andy Kim in the 3rd congressional district.

Another Republican, Brian Fitzherbert, dropped out the race, leaving Bob Patterson — a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush who wants to “make South Jersey great again” — to try and challenge Mr. Van Drew’s credibility within the party.

“This is a competitive district and so the biggest threat to Van Drew is the combination of a well-funded, aggressive Democratic challenger combined with less than overwhelming support from Republicans,” Mr. Dworkin said.

Several Democrats are vying in the 2020 primary that Mr. Van Drew fled.

One of them, Amy Kennedy, released a 30-second ad Tuesday slamming Mr. Van Drew for aligning himself with Mr. Trump in the Oval Office.

“Part of the reason I’m running for Congress is because in one press conference Jeff Van Drew became a shameless apologist for Donald Trump. And he abandoned the voters he was elected to serve by pledging his undying support to a politician instead of to the people,” said Mrs. Kennedy, the wife of former Rep. Patrick Kennedy.”

It’s unclear how Mr. Trump’s presence in the general election will affect things down-ballot this November, or if national Democrats will pour significant resources into the House race.

Ross Baker, a politics professor at Rutgers University, said one wild card could be George Norcross, a South Jersey power broker who supported Mr. Van Drew in 2018 but may turn his political machine against him.

“If he decides to throw his weight against Van Drew,” the professor said, “the dapper dentist is toast.”

• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at thowell@washingtontimes.com.

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