Meet Jeff Van Drew, the party-switching lawmaker who will join Trump at his New Jersey rally

  • In Politics
  • 2020-01-28 09:00:09Z

WASHINGTON - When the Democratic-led House took its historic vote to impeach Donald Trump last month, the president called it an "assault on America."

But there was a silver lining for the Trump. His name was Jeff Van Drew, a freshman congressman from southern New Jersey who was one of only two Democrats to break ranks and vote against both articles of impeachment.

Van Drew has since switched his party affiliation to GOP, a move that Trump welcomed during a visit between the two in the Oval Office on Dec. 19, the day after the House's historic vote. On Tuesday, Trump will return the favor, campaigning for Van Drew's re-election bid at a rally in Wildwood, N.J.

Trump's decision to reward Van Drew for rushing to his defense comes as a handful of wavering senators are debating whether to allow witnesses, such as former national security adviser John Bolton, at Trump's impeachment trial who could offer testimony damaging to the president's case.

The high-profile show of support is already going a long way toward helping Van Drew build support within his new party, where activists who actively fought his campaign in past elections will now be championing his candidacy.

GOP State Sen. Michael Testa described then-Democrat Van Drew in late November as someone "who will do and say anything to remain in office." In 2019, the Vineland, N.J. lawyer defeated a Van Drew-backed candidate last fall following a nasty campaign.

Testa now calls Van Drew a "wonderful addition to the Republican party."

What changed? The state senator said his prior comments reflected raw feelings coming off a tough campaign and that he has since had a chance to get to know Van Drew better.

"I'm one of those who forgives and forgets," said Testa, who is honorary co-chair of the Trump campaign in New Jersey. "I believe that anybody that worked against the Van Drew team in the past needs to realize the big picture of this (and) what an addition to the Republican team this represents."

Testa predicted other GOP activists and officials would warm to Van Drew.

Impeachment fallout: Here's how partisan wrath over Trump's impeachment changed the future of 2 lawmakers

Testa will be at the Wildwood rally when Trump takes the unusual step of making a campaign stop for a congressman in a blue state.

But there are benefits for the president: the South Jersey media market includes communities in the voter-rich Philadelphia suburbs that could decide swing state Pennsylvania; and Trump will be able to tout Van Drew as an example of how impeachment is driving some conservatives into the GOP tent.

The backlash from Democrats over Van Drew's impeachment vote helped propel him to become a Republican after decades as a Democrat, he said. And it appears the party switch may lift his reelection chances since he no longer has to win what would have been a difficult primary.

The non-partisan Cook Political Report said the move boosted the congressman's re-election chances in a district Trump won in 2016 by nearly five points.

Even as a Democrat, the former dentist from Cape May was warmer to the president than many of his party colleagues.

He displayed a photo of Trump in his Capitol Hill office: a 2008 glossy when Van Drew was a state senator and the future president visited Atlantic City to christen the Chairman Tower at the Trump Taj Mahal.

More: Democratic Rep. Jeff Van Drew, critic of Trump impeachment, to switch to GOP

Van Drew, who turns 67 next month, said the president's aides had reached out to him after he began airing his opposition to impeachment to see if he would consider changing parties.

At the Oval Office meeting where Trump said he would endorse Van Drew for re-election, the New Jersey congressman said the Republican Party "is just a better fit for me."

The sprawling Second District of New Jersey which Van Drew represents stretches along the South Jersey shore, from the boardwalk of Atlantic City to the Victorian mansions of Cape May and west to the working-class exurbs of Philadelphia. In between sit the sprawling Pine Barrens and the rolling farms that gave New Jersey its name "the Garden State."

More: 'Unsavory,' not impeachable: Democratic lawmaker explains why he opposes removing Trump

The president has ties to the district. The Trump Plaza Casino and Hotel, the Trump Marina Hotel Casino and the Trump Taj Mahal were all prominent features of Atlantic City before they folded in recent years.

Van Drew won his seat in 2018 that had been held by Republican Frank LoBiondo for 24 years. Although New Jersey is one of the bluest states in the nation, the district is an outlier.

Van Drew captured the race as an NRA-backed conservative who often broke from his party.

He flexed that independent streak during his year in Congress with his opposition to key proposal pushed by party liberals such as the Green New Deal and universal health care. But he said the need to confront climate change and opposition to the president's push to drill for oil off the Jersey Shore and other areas of the Atlantic isn't going to change.

He decided to switch parties over the fractious impeachment debate. While he described Trump's pressure campaign on Ukraine as "unsavory," he argued it didn't rise to an impeachable offense.

"Unless it is something that is so horrific which has been committed, such as real treason or a real high crime, it shouldn't be used. You are disenfranchising millions of voters," the congressman said in a recent interview. "If we start doing this, we're becoming a third-world country."

For Van Drew, impeachment was "the topper," so he took up the offer from Trump's lieutenants to become a Republican.

Despite the party switch, the congressman said he still plans to be bipartisan - without worrying that he'll end up in the political doghouse.

"I look forward to being able to say something that's a little bit conservative or moderate or a little bit different and not being yelled at and be told I'm going to be punished," he said.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Trump rally: Meet Rep. Jeff Van Drew, New Jersey lawmaker new to GOP


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