Among the legislation Van Drew supported this year were measures blocking Trump from withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement, opposing Trump’s ban on transgender military members, opposing Trump’s efforts to undo the Affordable Care Act in the courts and overruling Trump’s efforts to rein in the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Van Drew also opposed Trump’s withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria, condemned Trump’s racist comments against minority congresswomen and — twice — voted to overturn Trump’s emergency declaration to build the border wall.
He also backed key policy bills opposed by the Trump administration and all but a handful of Republicans — bills that would raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, ban most oil drilling along the U.S. coastline and expand background checks for gun buyers.
At the White House on Thursday, Van Drew said he believed the Republican Party was “just a better fit” for his views. Privately in the preceding days, Van Drew’s top aide assured staffers that his voting behavior would not change as a Republican.
According to two former Van Drew staffers who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid retribution, Chief of Staff Allison Murphy told them Van Drew would continue voting for Democratic legislation. The only difference, Murphy said in those conversations, according to the ex-aides, would be that Republican leaders would place him on better committees — suggesting that Van Drew had made those assignments a condition of his switch. The assurances came as part of an effort by Murphy to keep the aides on the congressman’s staff.
Murphy, who continues to work for Van Drew and attended Thursday’s Oval Office event, did not respond to an email seeking comment on the conversations, which happened over the weekend as news of Van Drew’s impending party switch went public.
Her appeals did not succeed: Six staffers resigned shortly after Van Drew informed them of his intended party switch.
Speaking to reporters Wednesday, before making his announcement with Trump, Van Drew had a hard time spelling out his policy differences with the Democrats, citing “American exceptionalism” — a point he would make the next day in the Oval Office.
“I don’t want anybody to ever say that this is the same as every other country in the world, because it is not,” he said, citing “certain groups of people that represented certain parts” of the Democratic Party who said “there is no such thing as American exceptionalism.”
Van Drew also expressed support for Trump’s handling of the economy, as well as “honoring our police, our fire, our rescue, our veterans, our soldiers.”
That solidarity with Trump on broad matters of policy and cultural sensibility may not be enough to endear him to Republican voters in South Jersey, which elected GOP Rep. Frank A. LoBiondo to 12 terms before his retirement paved the way for Van Drew’s election last year.
Van Drew on Wednesday described his voting record thusly: “If it’s something that I think is good, I’m going to vote for it. If it’s something that I don’t think is as good, I won’t.”
On one of his first votes as a Republican on Thursday, Van Drew broke with the Trump administration — supporting a bill restoring the full state-and-local-tax deduction, which was capped in the 2017 Republican tax bill. The White House said the restoration measure “is unfair to middle-class taxpayers, encourages excessive spending by states, and would stunt economic growth.”
That bill, however, is one apostasy that may not bother New Jersey Republicans much. As a state with an above-average tax burden, Garden State taxpayers were disproportionately hurt by the tax bill’s cap on the long-standing deduction.
In any case, three conservative Republicans say they will seek the GOP nomination against Van Drew next year and have not been shy about attacking Van Drew as an untrustworthy turncoat who has reliably voted with Democrats.
“How stupid does Desperate Jeff Van Drew think South Jersey Republicans are?” one GOP candidate, Brian Fitzherbert, said in a Facebook post this week. “Desperate Jeff knew exactly what Washington Democrats were about when he ran for Congress two years ago. . . . How can South Jersey Republicans trust Jeff Van Drew to represent our Party?”
Van Drew could find himself relying largely on Trump’s sometimes unreliable goodwill as he seeks to fend off more conservative primary challengers. Republicans familiar with the discussions between Trump, Van Drew and GOP operatives expect the president to campaign in some manner for Van Drew next year.
Mike DuHaime, a Republican strategist and former top political aide to former governor Chris Christie, said he believed support from Trump would be more than enough to allow Van Drew to overcome the intra-GOP attacks.
Van Drew, he noted, earned a reputation in New Jersey as a reliable vote for Christie during his governorship, and voters in the relatively conservative southern tip of the state remain solidly behind Trump.
“People are going to look at that more than some percentage of his votes,” DuHaime said. “That is going to carry more weight.”
But with a campaign of his own to win — one that does not pivot in any way on New Jersey — Van Drew’s renomination might ultimately slip down Trump’s political priority list.
The National Republican Congressional Committee typically does not intervene in GOP primaries, and on Thursday it did not signal any change in policy.
Rep. Tom Emmer (R-Minn.), the group’s chairman, praised Van Drew “for refusing to blindly follow Nancy Pelosi’s stampede of hate-filled Democrats over the edge of the political cliff” but otherwise made no mention of the primary race to come.
“This is now a Republican seat and we will fight tooth and nail to ensure it remains a Republican seat,” he said, whether Van Drew holds it or not.
On Wednesday, Van Drew said he believed GOP primary voters would recognize his long record as a state legislator who won elections in a largely Republican county.
“I work hard,” he said. “Republicans have always been very supportive of me.”
That may change, though, in New Jersey’s June 2 primary. Another Republican challenger, Bob Patterson, called Van Drew a “liberal opportunist who only cares about protecting his political career” in a Friday statement and called on him to disburse the more than $800,000 he raised as a Democrat.
On that, there is some bipartisan accord: The House Majority PAC, a political action committee affiliated with Pelosi, called on Van Drew to return a $2,500 donation it had given. Democratic colleagues had given his campaign another $234,600 this year, according to an analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics.
“Your shameful decision to join Trump’s GOP is not in line with our values or stated mission,” Abby Curran Horrell, the House Majority PAC executive director, wrote in a letter to Van Drew, echoing grumbling inside the party ranks about Van Drew’s decision to switch parties after millions of dollars of Democratic investment in 2018.
Some Democrats have suggested that Van Drew’s switch was based on his political outlook.
Van Drew’s decision to oppose impeachment badly alienated Democratic voters in his district, sparking a primary challenge that threatened his prospects for reelection. A polling memo obtained by The Washington Post, citing results of a Dec. 7-10 survey of likely Democratic voters commissioned by Van Drew’s campaign, found only 24 percent thought he should be reelected, with 58 percent wanting another Democrat nominated for the seat.