A new poll shows Democrats have the advantage in their quest to win back a South Jersey congressional seat they’d captured two years ago, only to see their candidate switch parties and become a Republican.

Democrat Amy Kennedy leads Rep. Jeff Van Drew in the 2nd Congressional District, according to the Monmouth University Poll. She is ahead 49% to 44% among registered voters, and that lead expands to 6% among likely voters in a high turnout scenario and 7% under a lower turnout model.

Van Drew was elected to an open seat in 2018, part of the ‘blue wave’ in which Democrats flipped four seats in New Jersey as part of retaking the House of Representatives. He announced last December that he would switch parties, in large part because he opposed impeaching President Donald Trump, who rewarded Van Drew by holding a campaign rally at the Wildwoods Convention Center on Jan. 28.

“I think it’s because this has really sparked some Democratic enthusiasm down there,” said Monmouth University poll director Patrick Murray. “The Trump voters are very enthusiastic. We saw them out in Wildwood earlier in the year for the president at that rally, but it’s really Democratic voters who came out and gave Kennedy such a big win in the primary, and they want to get rid of Van Drew. So this is really putting her in the driver’s seat right now.”

In 2016, Trump won in the 2nd District by 4.6 percentage points. But the poll finds his popularity has slipped – with his job rating at 45% approve, 51% disapprove and Democrat Joe Biden ahead of him by 3 points among registered voters and 5 points in a high-turnout election.

“It’s within the margin of error, but that’s certainly a flip from where it had been – and certainly where it was when Van Drew made the calculation of the party switch,” Murray said.

Murray noted that the district supported Barack Obama in the 2008 and 2012 elections.

“It’s a district where a lot of voters aren’t really tied closely to their own party identity or a specific party identity, but they’re really tied to the fact that they’re not sure things are going all that well. So they voted for change in 2008. They voted again in 2016. And it looks like once more in 2020,” Murray said.

Thirty-five percent of voters say it bothers them a lot that Van Drew won as a Democrat but is seeking re-election as a Republican, and another 12% say it bothers them a little.

“A lot of them seem to think of Van Drew’s party shift as just basically protecting his own position, and that’s exactly the kind of thing they’re trying to vote against,” Murray said.

Van Drew served in the state Legislature from 2002 to 2018, first in the Assembly and then the Senate, and was its most conservative Democrat. He resisted repeated entreaties to challenge then-Rep. Frank LoBiondo but declined, only seeking the seat once LoBiondo retired after 12 terms.

Now that he has switched parties, he retains virtually no Democratic support. The poll finds Kennedy leading 94% to 1% among Democratic voters, while Van Drew leads 89% to 8% among Republicans.

“There’s softer support on the Republican side,” Murray said. “There’s strong enthusiasm among Democrats. There seems to be a high turnout. But among Republicans, there’s still some Republicans out there who don’t trust Van Drew’s party switch as well.”

In Cape May and Cumberland counties, which were in Van Drew’s former state legislative district, which Van Drew won by 13 points two years ago, Kennedy leads by 5 points.

“So basically, all those years that Van Drew ran as a Democrat, winning over some of these formerly red voters in that county, they’re staying Democrat. And they’re not staying with Van Drew, Murray said.

Kennedy, whose father Jerry Savell was an Atlantic County freeholder and city council member in Absecon and Pleasantville, is making her first run for public office. She is married to former U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy, of the family Kennedy political family of Massachusetts.

Two-thirds of voters were aware Kennedy had married a member of the Kennedy family. Sixty percent say that connection has no impact on their vote, and the others were basically split, with 20% saying it’s a positive and 17% saying it’s a negative.

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Murray said the 2nd District and nearby 3rd District in Burlington and Ocean counties, where Republican David Richter is challenging first-term Rep. Andy Kim, are the two most competitive districts in the state.

“The thing about this district is because of Van Drew’s party switch, it’s not exactly the kind of bellwether you can use to project what’s going on in other districts,” said Murray, who said the 2nd District electorate is different than in 2018 while the 3rd District one is more predictable.

“But it’s not bad news for Democrats statewide because if Amy Kennedy’s ahead here, Tom Malinowski is probably ahead in the 7th District on anti-Trump sentiment,” Murray said. “And Andy Kim probably is ahead, although it’s probably a tight race at this point.”

Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. Contact him at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com.

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