The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Progressives are going after a Democrat for voting against impeachment. Moderates should be nervous.

Rep. Jeff Van Drew (D-N.J.) is pictured leaving a meeting at the Longworth House Office Building on Nov. 28. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

This column has been updated.

Many Democrats are worried that their party could nominate someone so far to the left that it will risk reelecting President Trump. The saga of New Jersey Democratic Rep. Jeff Van Drew should make them worried about holding the House, too.

Van Drew won New Jersey’s 2nd Congressional District last year, one of the 42 seats Democrats flipped with their blue wave. He was not seriously targeted by national Republicans despite the fact that Trump carried his district by a 51 to 46 margin in 2016. Van Drew was a highly regarded state senator with a moderate reputation; the Republican candidate was an unknown with a history of racist social media posts. Plus, President Barack Obama carried the seat twice by comfortable margins. Despite these favorable tailwinds, Van Drew beat his hapless opponent by only a 53 to 45 margin.

A savvy politician, Van Drew clearly saw that the sands were shifting toward the Trump-led GOP in his South Jersey seat. Accordingly, he was one of only two House Democrats in late October to vote against the resolution authorizing the impeachment inquiry. His political judgment appeared to be vindicated just days later when Republicans surprisingly captured his old state Senate seat and two state Assembly seats located in his current district.

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One might expect Democrats to realize these political realities and treat the district as an endangered seat worth protecting. Instead, Van Drew is now threatened with primary challenges from his left.

At least three Democrats are said to be exploring running against Van Drew because of his impeachment apostasy. It doesn’t seem to matter to them that he was simply voting his district. Even former Democratic congressman Patrick Kennedy, who represented Rhode Island and now calls South Jersey home, tossed a hand grenade in Van Drew’s lap. “If he votes no on impeachment … I wouldn’t be the only one around here who will be marking him absent from now on,” the son of Democratic icon Ted Kennedy told local press.

Progressive ire toward Trump puts many House Democrats in a political bind. Polls increasingly show that swing states and districts oppose removing Trump from office. Indeed, a recent Marquette Law School poll found that Wisconsin voters, who backed Trump in 2016 with a margin smaller than one percentage point, oppose removing him from office by a whopping 13 points. Even the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee found that opening the impeachment inquiry was favored with only a one-percentage-point margin — 49 to 48 — among voters in 57 “battleground districts.”

The DCCC poll hides even worse news for members such as Van Drew. Since polls show the inquiry is more popular than removal from office, it stands to reason that battleground district voters likely opposed removal in the DCCC poll. Furthermore, those tiny margins of support for impeachment is bad news for the Democrat’s majority. In 2018, Democrats gained 22 seats that Hillary Clinton had carried in 2016. Given that such Democratic-leaning seats were clearly included in the 57-seat sample and that support for the inquiry and removal breaks sharply on partisan lines, it’s reasonable to assume that support for impeachment is behind in other Republican-leaning seats, such as Van Drew’s.

That is a huge potential problem for House Democrats, who currently hold 31 seats Trump carried in 2016. With passions over impeachment running so high and opinions sharply split on partisan grounds, voting for the inquiry was an incredibly risky vote for any Democrat representing one of these seats. Despite that, only Minnesota’s Collin Peterson — who represents the most Republican district in the country held by a Democrat — joined Van Drew in opposing the inquiry. Republicans need only 17 of these seats to win back the House.

Republicans are already seizing this opportunity. In mid-November, the GOP-aligned American Action Forum started to run more than $5 million in television ads focusing on impeachment against 18 House Democrats in Trump-won seats, as well as more than $2 million in digital and social media ads in a wider net of 37 seats. Another pro-Trump group, America First Policies, just announced it will spend more than $2 million in digital and television ads against 27 of the 31 Trump-seat Democrats. This is likely to be just the tip of the iceberg as the impeachment hearings move forward.

The Van Drew situation shows the political pickle vulnerable House Democrats are in. The filing deadline for primary challenges doesn’t pass until well into 2020 for all but one of the House Democrats who represent districts Trump carried. Most of these members will surely hold their noses and vote for impeachment to forestall that possibility; after all, you can’t win the general if you lose the primary. But that might just delay the inevitable. How fitting if progressive Trump-hatred succeeds in both reelecting him and giving his party the House.


An earlier version of this column incorrectly reported that Patrick Kennedy was the son of Robert Kennedy. He is the son of Ted Kennedy. This version has been updated.

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