NJ Spotlight

Van Drew's 'No' on Impeachment Inquiry Leaves Room to Walk It Back

Congressman's vote against impeachment proceedings didn't win friends among fellow Dems, but pundits suggest it was the right move for 2nd District

NJ Spotlight — November 1, 2019

By Colleen O'Dea

The vote against the rules for impeachment proceedings cast by freshman Rep. Jeff Van Drew, the former conservative Democratic state senator swept into Congress by last year's blue wave in New Jersey, was not a complete surprise, but it angered many Democrats nonetheless.

Van Drew, who represents the sprawling 2nd District that encompasses all or part of eight South Jersey counties, was one of only two Democrats to vote against a resolution setting up the rules for the forthcoming public inquiry into the possible impeachment of the president. The other was Rep. Collin Peterson of Minnesota.

Political observers say it was probably in the best interests of Van Drew and the Democratic Party for him to vote as he did to maximize his chance of winning re-election next year. But at least some members of grassroots organizations that formed after the 2016 presidential election and helped put Van Drew in office disagree.

Upcoming challenge for Van Drew?

"I just feel like he is looking out for himself, for his own political aspirations," said Angela Bardoe, a member of several groups who only got involved in politics three years ago. She said she heard from colleagues and neighbors today who were upset over Van Drew's vote. "I feel 100 percent certain that he will get a primary challenge next year. People are already talking about it. People are already planning."

Like Bardoe, Melissa Tomlinson noted that the vote was simply for a public impeachment inquiry and not whether to impeach Trump.

"He is supposed to be representing his constituents," said Tomlinson, a member of South Jersey Women for Progressive Change and NJ 21 United. "We would like to see the process happen ... If you feel you have more moderate or conservative views on some issues, that's one thing, but at some point in time you have to draw the line on values. His taking this stand right now is very concerning."

Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, said Van Drew is counting on his "established brand image," as well as the backing of the South Jersey Democratic political machine to hold off such a challenge. It's too soon to tell how his vote yesterday may ultimately impact his re-election chances.

"We will have to see what the public at large, and particularly in his district, feels about impeachment next spring to get a sense of whether or how it will impact him," Murray said. "Of course, if supporting Donald Trump becomes untenable, he can always vote in favor of the actual articles of impeachment."

After the vote, Van Drew's office released a brief statement that hinted at just that.

'Tearing country apart at seams'

"Without bipartisan support I believe this inquiry will further divide the country tearing it apart at the seams and will ultimately fail in the Senate," read the statement. "However, now that the vote has taken place and we are moving forward I will be making a judgement call based on all the evidence presented by these investigations."

Right now, though, he is already facing a lot of ire from progressives, including groups like New Jersey Citizen Action.

"New Jersey Citizen Action is calling the New Jersey Democratic Party to replace Jeff Van Drew as the Democratic candidate in the 2nd Congressional District," said Phyllis Salowe-Kaye, the group's executive director. "Representative Van Drew does not uphold the values of Democratic Party and does not deserve its backing. President Trump stands accused of impeachable offenses that, if true, would undermine the very foundation of our democracy and an impeachment inquiry must be pursued."

John Froonjian, interim executive director of the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Stockton University, said he can't see an established Democrat challenging Van Drew, however.

"But the Republicans will be gunning for him and he cannot or wouldn't out-Trump the GOP challenger, so I think it (his vote yesterday) minimizes potential harm," Froonjian said. "I think it may help keep Republicans who have voted for him already many times from getting angry and leaving the fold."

Van Drew was not the only New Jersey Democrat whose re-election could hinge on impeachment, but he was the only one voting "no." The three other freshmen who flipped red districts last year — Andy Kim, Tom Malinowski and Mikie Sherrill — all voted yes. So did Rep. Josh Gottheimer: In his third term representing a formerly longtime GOP stronghold, he has taken a number of positions in Washington that have angered Democrats in his 5th District in the northwestern part of the state.

But unlike those others, Van Drew had not come around to supporting the impeaching inquiry after revelations that Trump had withheld aid to Ukraine and asked the country's president to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, who is vying to be Trump's Democratic presidential opponent next year.

What Van Drew tells conservatives

In fact, Van Drew instead has been making the rounds of conservative news outlets, including prime time on Fox News, bemoaning the impeachment inquiry and telling anyone who would listen that he likely would not be supporting it.

In his 17 years in the state Legislature representing a district where voters are more red than blue, Van Drew was among the most conservative Democrats, and probably the most conservative in the Senate until he resigned last December after having won his seat in the House.

His congressional district is a study in contrasts, though.

Voter registration leans blue — 31% Democrat and 27% Republican. Still, it had been long represented by Republican Frank LoBiondo, who retired last year after 24 years in the House. LoBiondo was a moderate and considered the most liberal of New Jersey's GOP congressmen. In the last seven presidential elections, the district voted blue four times and red the other three, and chose President Donald Trump over Clinton by a bare majority of 50.6 percent, but a 5-point margin.

With his name recognition and having represented in the state Legislature as part of the 2nd Congressional District, Van Drew was expect to have an easy victory last year. But he wound up winning by a much closer 8 points over a Republican with little money who had lost the backing of the National Republican Congressional Committee over controversial remarks regarding race. Two prominent websites rate his district as leaning Democratic next year, and at least three Republicans have already lined up for the privilege of challenging him.

Froonjian said the district and its voting patterns are nuanced.

"Conventional wisdom calls it a Republican-leaning district," he said. "Rep. LoBiondo was centrist on labor issues (especially with trade unions) and the environment but pretty conservative on social and budget issues. The late Rep. Bill Hughes was a moderate Democrat. I think Rep. Van Drew is in that mold."

Froonjian said recent results from the Stockton Polling Institute "probably explain his (Van Drew's) reasoning." For instance, support for the impeachment inquiry in the eight southern counties was split, with 46% in favor and 47% opposed.

"Almost the exact same split was found in the 1st Legislative District, which is part of CD2," he continued. "Van Drew knows these numbers, but I will also say he is everywhere traveling the district and has certainly heard it himself. So he can't get too far ahead of his constituents, especially when an incumbent is most vulnerable their first time out for re-election. Witness (state Sen.) Rob Andrzejczak saying he would not rule out voting for Trump."

Making smart political decisions

Ben Dworkin, founding director of the Institute for Public Policy and Citizenship at Rowan University, agreed that Van Drew has tended to make smart political decisions and said these are necessary to continue in politics.

"He's been successful in this district — a district that supported Trump in 2016 — because he's smart, well-liked and moderate and most importantly, he is generally in tune with the needs and perspectives of a majority of people in this area," Dworkin said. "We only have two major parties in this country and therefore each becomes a pretty large umbrella for a variety of voices. In today's hyperpartisan era, there is a tendency, and sometimes a need, to want to demand uniformity on issues. But without widening the range of voices allowed into a party, there's almost no way for that party to obtain and maintain a majority in Congress."

Matthew Hale, a professor of political science and public affairs at Seton Hall University, agreed.

"If Democrats are going to keep the House majority, dream of a Senate majority or hope to win the presidency in 2020, they need to give attention and care to the centrist part of their party," he said. "That means allowing Gottheimer and Sherrill the time they needed to come around to impeachment and it means allowing Van Drew the space to reach a different conclusion."

He said these districts could easily revert to Republican control, and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) clearly did not need Van Drew's vote.

"There are many similar districts across the country and there are entire swing states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin where a left-wing democrat will struggle," Hale continued. "To have any hope of winning these places Democrats have to show they have not been taken over by the left wing. Allowing Van Drew to dissent, helps Democrats make that case."

Sherrill, who won the formerly red 11th District last year by a surprisingly lopsided margin, did take time coming around to supporting the inquiry. Yesterday, she issued a statement explaining why she voted yes.

Sherrill explains her 'yes'

"The evidence that the president of the United States endangered our national security and used his office for personal gain prompted me to advocate that Congress use all means at its disposal to investigate what happened," she said. "My vote today supports the procedures that will ensure the American people understand this investigative process and will hear the evidence in an open and public forum."

Immediately, Sherrill, Gottheimer and Kim faced a blitz of digital ads funded by the Congressional Leadership Fund, which is targeting 29 Democrats considered vulnerable because they represent districts Trump won in 2016. According to the fund, the ads will target key voters online as they search for terms like "impeach," "impeachment," "inquiry" or as they seek information about their representative and direct individuals to a new website ImpeachmentDemocrats.com where voters can sign a petition to demand Democrats drop their efforts to impeach Trump.

"The Democrats are so blinded by their personal hatred of President Trump that they're willing to sacrifice all work on the issues voters care about, just to have one last shot at removing him from office to avenge their 2016 loss," said CLF President Dan Conston in a statement announcing the ads.

The person in New Jersey with the most at stake is Andy Kim, whose 3rd District in Burlington and Ocean counties is rated a tossup by both the Cook Political Report and Larry Sabato's Crystal Ball. Kim ousted Republican Tom MacArthur by the narrowest margin in New Jersey in 2018 — 1.2%, or fewer than 4,000 votes, following a count of mail-in and provisional ballots that took more than a week. Voter registration is slightly in his favor — about 31% Democrats to 29% Republicans — but the 3rd District voted for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton in 2016 by 6.2%, the most of any of the districts that Democrats won last year.

Kim sent an email to supporters yesterday afternoon, explaining his vote that included a button allowing for readers to contribute to his campaign.

"Today is a somber day," he wrote. "I had to make the hard decision to move the impeachment proceedings one step further. I've made this decision because I believe that we, as the American people, deserve the uninhibited truth. Every decision I have made on this topic has not been made to play a part in any political games, but because it's morally right."

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