Representative Jeff Van Drew has yet to formally announce he is leaving the Democratic Party to become a Republican and on Tuesday refused to answer questions about it as he returned to Washington to cast votes in Congress. He did offer this cryptic statement to reporters: “I’m re-evaluating my life and my thoughts.” 

While many speculate that Van Drew received assurance from President Donald Trump that he would have party support for re-election, the congressman refused to reveal what the two spoke about. However, there continues to be pushback from New Jersey Republicans.

Republican candidates David Richter, Robert Patterson and Brian Fitzherbert have shown no signs they will withdraw from the race. Search for Patterson’s name on Google and you’ll see “Jeff Van Drew|Not a Real Republican” as the headline for his website.State GOP Chairman Doug Steinhardt welcomed Van Drew to the NJGOP, but told NJ.com this a “quickly evolving situation.” Steinhardt refused to say if he was talking to local party chairmen about trying to clear the republican field for Van Drew to run unopposed.

Political reality

Congressman Jeff Van Drew’s decision to switch parties may have less to do with political ideology and more to do with political reality and self-preservation.

The national media has been focused on Van Drew’s vocal opposition to the impeachment of President Donald Trump. Television pundits have talked endlessly about the implications of his defection from the Democratic Party and whether it will have any impact on impeachment proceedings.

A CNN headline called the switch a “godsend” for President Trump.    

Van Drew’s grim political reality

The reality is this: Van Drew would not have won re-election as a Democrat.  Not in New Jersey’s staunchly conservative 2nd Congressional District, which overwhelmingly came out for President Trump in 2016.  Van Drew had already voiced opposition to impeachment. He was likely going to face a primary challenge. It’s a primary he was likely to lose.  Now, Brigid Callahan Harrison, a political science professor at Montclair State University, has announced she will seek the Democratic nomination.

Van Drew saw the writing on the wall about his political future after his own polling data showed little support for re-election. Even among Democrats, his support was just 24% among regular primary voters. Just 28% of those same voters said he deserved to be re-elected.

Harrison was considering a primary challenge and her support for impeachment was boosting her popularity among Democrats.  Since reports emerged about a party switch for Van Drew, Harrison made her formal announcement.

Mixed reactions

Van Drew has been a moderate voice in the Democratic Party his entire political career. A pragmatist, Van Drew has not shied away from siding with Republicans in the past.  However, make no mistake, he is not considered one of them.  His Democratic roots run deep and he is loyal to Democratic Party boss George Norcross.

While state Republican Chairman Doug Steinhart and the National Republican Congressional Committee have yet to weigh in on the switch, local GOP leaders in the 2nd District are rebuffing Van Drew.

Jacci Vigilante, the head of the Gloucester County Republican Committee, was wary of Van Drew. She told the Philadelphia Inquirer he would need to denounce any affiliation with Norcross to earn their trust. Even that may not be enough. David Richter, the leading GOP candidate in the 2nd, vowed to stay in the race and questioned whether GOP voters would support a lifelong Democrat.

It’s possible Van Drew, who met with President Trump, has already been promised Trump’s support and help clearing the field so he can have a better chancre at re-election next November.  However, Ben Dworkin, director of the Rowan University Institute of Public Policy, suggests that even if Van Drew were to run opposed, Republican voters might just skip the race.   

Man without a party

Van Drew may have put himself into an even more difficult position than when he read those abysmal poll results.

It’s hard to argue he had a crisis of conscience when he could have opposed impeachment, remained a Democrat and still voted independently when it suited him.

Gov. Phil Murphy called the switch a “pathetic betrayal” and vowed to oust him from office next November.  Democratic Congressman Frank Pallone donated $10,000 to Van Drew’s campaign and now says he wants a refund.

Republicans are not exactly embracing Van Drew, either. The silence from state and national GOP campaign organizations is deafening. Its unlikely GOP donors will be cutting big checks. Its possible Trump can keep them in line. The president reportedly orchestrated the switch. The GOP faithful in the district may also follow Trump’s lead.

In the end, Van Drew likely made the calculated decision that a slim chance at a political future was better than none.

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