“Very big announcement . . . Jeff will be joining the Republican Party,” Trump said Thursday, with Van Drew by his side in the Oval Office.
The announcement is one of the White House’s first acts of political combat following Wednesday’s impeachment vote, with the intent of casting the Democratic Party as consumed with investigating the president and inhospitable to moderates.
Van Drew and Rep. Collin C. Peterson (Minn.) were the only Democrats to vote against both articles of impeachment — abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. On the second article, obstruction, those two and freshman Rep. Jared Golden (D-Maine) voted in opposition. Democratic Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, who is running for president, voted “present” on each article.
Van Drew, a 66-year-old dentist, was elected in 2018 to represent a congressional district that was won by Trump in 2016.
Trump and administration officials, along with outside allies, have been wooing Van Drew for weeks, urging him to switch parties and assuring him that Trump and the GOP will support his reelection bid.
“I believe that this is just a better fit for me,” Van Drew said Thursday at the White House. “This is who I am,” adding that Trump has his “undying support.”
In response, Trump said he endorses Van Drew.
Despite Van Drew’s claim of the GOP being “better fit,” his voting record on major bills was almost uniformly with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), not with Trump. Aside from impeachment votes, a bipartisan budget deal, and a vote on holding two Trump cabinet officials in contempt of Congress, Van Drew broke with the Trump administration on every major vote of 2019.
Trump sealed Van Drew’s commitment to a switch on Dec. 13 during a meeting in the White House residence, according to two top Republicans briefed on the meeting who were not authorized to speak publicly.
Van Drew arrived quietly at the White House that day and was greeted by White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, who ushered the lawmaker through the White House. At one point, Van Drew and Conway walked past two television reporters — but the reporters did not recognize the largely unknown New Jersey Democrat, the Republicans said, enabling Van Drew to proceed without notice.
Once at the residence, Van Drew, Conway and Trump talked at length about his political future and his concerns about the Democratic Party. Trump promised that he and the Republican Party would enthusiastically back Van Drew next year, including with events in his district, the Republicans added.
A rally in New Jersey with Van Drew could happen as soon as January, according to one of the Republicans.
Beyond Conway, former New Jersey governor Chris Christie and Bill Stepien, a former White House political director who is now a senior adviser to Trump’s campaign, were key players in engaging Van Drew and his political orbit and encouraged him to seriously consider a switch. Both Christie and Stepien — a former aide to Christie — have deep roots in Garden State politics.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) welcomed Van Drew in brief remarks at his weekly news conference earlier Thursday.
“Republicans are a very big tent. We’re excited to have Jeff Van Drew. We welcome anybody that believes this new Democrat socialist party has left them behind,” McCarthy said.
McCarthy, Vice President Pence and Conway were with the president and Van Drew at the White House announcement.
Van Drew’s polling numbers have reportedly been flagging in recent months, as some of the congressman’s colleagues have pointed out. Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, cited Van Drew’s disappointing internal poll numbers as the reason behind his impending decision to leave the Democrats.
“What he’s reacting to is public polling that shows he can’t get renominated,” Nadler said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week With George Stephanopoulos.” “His electorate in his district is 24 percent to renominate him and 60 percent to nominate somebody else.”
The Washington Post reported an internal survey last week that found 24 percent of respondents in Van Drew’s district said they would support him in another run, and 58 percent said they would like a new Democratic candidate for his seat.
Already, one challenger has voiced her intent to oppose Van Drew as a Democrat. Brigid Callahan Harrison, a Montclair State University political science professor who plans to run for Van Drew’s seat, slammed the sitting representative as a “traitor.”
Amy Kennedy, a former public school teacher and the wife of former congressman Patrick J. Kennedy (D-R.I.), announced late Monday that she is considering running for the seat.
Van Drew is the 10th member of Congress to switch parties in the past 20 years; with his move, two senators and eight members of the House have made the switch. Six were Democrats who headed to the GOP, three were Republicans who joined the Democratic caucus and one, Rep. Justin Amash (I-Mich.), left the GOP and has declined to caucus with either party.
Mike DeBonis, Paul Kane and Katie Shepherd contributed to this report.