The race for New Jersey’s 2nd Congressional District began in earnest about a year ago.
A few months before the coronavirus pandemic roiled the United States, House Democrats were preparing to impeach President Trump.
But first-term U.S. Rep. Jeff Van Drew was one of just two Democrats nationwide to break ranks and vote no.
“I think this splits the country apart further, and I think we want to try to heal the country, bring it together,” Van Drew said at the time.
The already conservative Democrat was hit with a wave of criticism over his decision to vote against impeachment, and a few weeks later Van Drew made one of the rarest moves in politics.
Clad in a red tie and seated beside President Donald Trump in the Oval Office, Van Drew announced that he was leaving the Democratic Party, becoming a Republican and backing the president.
“You have my undying support,” Van Drew said. “Always.”
Trump replied in kind. “I’m endorsing him, OK? We’re endorsing him.”
The party-switch immediately set off a scramble among Democrats over who would get to challenge the newly-minted, Trump-endorsed Republican in this year’s general election, making it one of the buzziest races in the country for a seat that is neither solidly Democratic nor Republican.
New Jersey’s 2nd District is a largely rural sweep of land that stretches from the Philadelphia suburbs to the Jersey Shore, comprising all or parts of eight counties along the southern tip of the state.
District residents voted for Democrat Barack Obama twice before supporting Trump in the 2016 election.
But Democrats feel like they have an opportunity to retake — or hold onto — the seat now that Van Drew has defected from the party and aligned himself with Trump.
Their pick to do it is Amy Kennedy, a former middle school teacher and political newcomer.
Kennedy is the wife of former U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy, who represented Rhode Island, but her family goes back four generations in Atlantic County. Both sets of her great-grandparents ran businesses on South Carolina Avenue in Atlantic City.
“My great-grandparents owned Carolina Pastry Shop and my other great-grandparents owned a photography shop,” she said.
Kennedy nabbed the endorsements of Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy and progressive groups during the primary.
She lists improving the health care system — including getting a handle on the COVID-19 pandemic — and diversifying South Jersey’s economy as her top two issues.
But she has also hit Van Drew on his party flip, saying that where he landed matters less than his motivations for jumping the Democratic ship.
“He did what he thought would get him reelected instead of just looking out for South Jersey. I think there’s a way to be an independent voice regardless of what party you’re in, and that’s not what we saw from him,” Kennedy said.
The Van Drew campaign did not respond to multiple interview requests for this story.
A recent Monmouth University poll had Kennedy leading Van Drew by five percentage points, though it was within the poll’s margin of error. The Cook Political Report calls the contest a “Republican toss-up.”
Ben Dworkin, director of the Rowan University Institute for Public Policy and Citizenship, said Van Drew may have lost the support of some more moderate Democrats after his Oval Office photo-op with Trump.
“When [Van Drew] was a conservative Democrat, there was a bit of a man-bites-dog novelty to the whole thing,” Dworkin said. “Now that he’s a Republican, it’s a dog-bites-man thing. It’s not as big a deal.”
While Van Drew and Kennedy appear to agree on boosting the South Jersey economy, they have clashed over issues more central to the national political debate.
The pair got into an argument over defunding the police during a recent debate hosted by NJ Spotlight News:
VAN DREW: “You said there was merit to it.”
KENNEDY: “To having a conversation.”
VAN DREW: “Right, merit to having a conversation…”
KENNEDY: “…and if you don’t agree with having a conversation…”
VAN DREW: “…no, I don’t think there’s merit to conversing about how we’re going to defund our police. I think it will hurt them.”
Both camps have seen an influx of outside funding to boost their chances in what would be a symbolic victory for either candidate, but it is still unclear which way the electorate will go.
Dworkin noted that the district has voted for the winning presidential candidate in every presidential election for the last 50 years.
“What we’re looking at in 2020 in the 2nd Congressional District is the high likelihood that whichever candidate wins the presidential race will have their party’s congressional candidate come in on their coattails,” he said.
According to Dworkin, being on the ticket with the winning presidential candidate could provide the necessary boost to one of the candidate’s in this South Jersey district. The question is which one will get that lift.