AVALON, N.J. - President Donald Trump has few reservations about undermining members of his own party, and David Richter was no exception.
Richter, a millionaire former chief executive of one of the nation's largest construction companies, for months had been considered the front-runner in the 2020 Republican primary for New Jersey's 2nd Congressional District.
But that all changed Dec. 19, when the district's incumbent, Rep. Jeff Van Drew, one of three Democrats to vote against impeachment, appeared in the Oval Office with Trump. Van Drew announced he was leaving the Democratic Party to become a Republican - and he had won the president's endorsement in the process.
"I assumed I was going to win, and win handily. And that all gets upended," Richter said in an interview at his home in Avalon. "Donald Trump did what was in the best interest of Donald Trump."
The endorsement was hardly a day old before Richter's institutional support began to crumble. His top advisers phoned in their apologies and said they were headed to work for Van Drew. The National Republican Congressional Committee scrubbed Richter, 52, from its 2020 Young Guns program, which is meant to highlight rising stars in the party.
Richter has remained in the race, but he now finds himself campaigning ostensibly in support of both the man and the institution that rejected him. As even longtime Republican lawmakers can attest, the merest dissent against this president can wreak havoc on one's career, often in the form of 280 characters.
Richter, whose political life has conversely just begun, is already running as Trump's roadkill.
There had been no classes on this when Richter attended Harvard's Kennedy School - what to do when your presumed general election opponent, once denounced by Republicans for his "socialist policies," is suddenly your party's hero, beaming alongside the president in an Oval Office chair typically reserved for visiting heads of state.
It didn't matter that in his one term in Congress, Van Drew had stuck with Democrats on issues like Trump's border wall, or that he'd endorsed Sen. Cory Booker for president. What mattered was that Trump had spoken.
"He's not only running against Jeff Van Drew now," Kellyanne Conway, a counselor to the president, said of Richter. "He's running against President Trump, too."
Richter said he wasn't bothered by the NRCC snub. ("The benefit I saw from Young Guns, other than a news release, was close to zero," he said.) But even a rookie like him could understand that his apparent new distance from the president was less than ideal, especially in a district where Trump is incredibly popular among Republican voters.
To exist in the Republican Party today is to be defined, more than anything else, by one's relationship with the president - and to accept that political survival often means maintaining it. Which is probably why, even as Richter dutifully proclaimed his commitment to seeing the race through, he quietly signaled his openness to an exit route.
In mid-December, as rumors circulated that Van Drew was planning to switch parties, Richter reached out to contacts in Trump's orbit including Bill Stepien, a Trump campaign official and New Jersey native. Stepien, as well as two others who spoke with Richter and requested anonymity to share private conversations, said Richter had stated his intention to stay in the race but would consider dropping out and running in New Jersey's 3rd Congressional District instead if he were promised financial support, the president's endorsement and a public request to jump into the other race. One of the people who spoke to Richter said he was still waiting to hear the White House's response to his offer.
Richter recalls those exchanges differently. "I have had several conversations with people close to the White House, and that topic did come up, but I did not initiate it," he said. "I also stated clearly that I did not have an interest in changing districts and I intended to continue pursuing the Republican nomination in the 2nd District. But I did say that if the White House or the Trump campaign wanted to have a dialogue with me about anything, I was willing to engage in a dialogue."
Conway said the White House hopes Richter will consider other ways to help the party. "We want Mr. Richter to remain engaged and be included," she said. "There are many ways to contribute short of running for Congress."
In some ways, Richter and the Trump world have been at odds from the beginning. It was Chris Christie, the former governor of New Jersey, and Stepien who helped orchestrate Van Drew's party switch. They began laying the groundwork in late October after Van Drew voted against formalizing the impeachment inquiry, one of just two Democrats to do so.
The nudge Van Drew needed came from his own polling, which showed support among Democratic voters in his district cratering if he ultimately voted against impeaching the president. Conway, who is also from South Jersey, was one of his first calls. On the night of Dec. 12, he told Conway, who was standing next to Christie at the time, that he was ready to pull the trigger. The plan was finalized in the White House residence the next morning: Van Drew would break with the Democrats on impeachment and join the president shortly after to announce his new affiliation.
Richter, for his part, remains careful to temper his criticism of the White House, and to clarify that he understands why Trump made the decision he did, and to say that he doesn't fault him for it. He credits the ordeal as yet another byproduct of "the swamp," a tale of what happens when leaders like Van Drew are no longer "loyal to their principles."
Asked if he believes Trump has stayed loyal to his principles, Richter paused. "No comment," he said, then backtracked. "And I don't want 'no comment' to be my answer. No answer."
On the topic of Van Drew, Richter is much more forthright. "I've talked to a lot of voters in the last month … and I can tell you, overwhelmingly and not by a close margin, they're not ready to back Jeff Van Drew," he said.
Of course there will be those who simply follow the president's lead, he noted. "But I think most people probably have a wait-and-see attitude, which is, 'Well, he's got to prove to me that he's really Republican now, and this just wasn't done opportunistically,' which I don't think he's going to be able to prove, because that's exactly what this is," Richter said.
Ron Filan, Van Drew's campaign manager, said in a statement, "If David has any question as to Congressman Van Drew's relationship with the voters of South Jersey, I'd invite David to sign up for a ticket and see the response Jeff Van Drew gets when President Trump comes to support him in Wildwood later this month."
Richter is doing what any textbook would probably advise at a moment like this: Drum up one's lifelong Republican bona fides. Remind voters of all the times the other guy stood with Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Stay optimistic that Republicans in this district "care about the issues" and "the principles they believe in."
But this is not a textbook time.
At a gathering of local Republicans at a Margate City restaurant this week, Richter introduced James Toto, a Somers Point councilman who was among the first officials to endorse him.
Toto should say he's still all in for Richter. That Van Drew's switch meant nothing, that of course he'd love to oblige the president, but that he already pledged his support elsewhere.
But after Richter walked away, Toto, leaning against the bar, admitted he was no longer so sure.
"I support our president. And this is what the president wishes," he said of voting for Van Drew.
Toto then clutched his chest. "How," he asked, "do I go against what the president stands for?"
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
© 2020 The New York Times Company