“I have not made a decision that I’m willing to share with anybody for a short period of time,” Van Drew told reporters.
His only declarative statement came when he said that he would run for reelection, heading into rocky political terrain that in recent years has produced either great long-term results for the party-switching lawmaker or immediate calamity.
Van Drew will be the 10th member of Congress to switch parties in the past 20 years — two senators and eight members of the House. Six were Democrats who headed to the GOP side of the aisle, 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.
Several immediately flopped in their new party’s next primary, rejected by voters who never believed in the authenticity of their political conversion. Some never ran again, opting to end their congressional service without ever testing their electoral viability in the new party.
But some managed to successfully win reelection and extended their careers by quite a few years, gaining prominence in the new caucus. Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.), possibly the most successful party switcher, said that the key to success is making the move for ideological reasons and not just a naked attempt at winning reelection.
“If you switch for situational things, you’ll be in trouble,” Shelby said Monday. “If you switch when the party leaves you, basically, which a lot of us did in the South, it was easier.”
Shelby left the Democratic Party the day after the 1994 midterm elections swept them out of power in Congress, the last salvo in a battle he had with President Bill Clinton over the Democratic agenda.
He had won reelection two years earlier and had almost four years to build up trust with Republican voters in Alabama, winning reelection with almost 64 percent of the vote in 1998. He never faced another difficult race and Republicans have promoted him over the years to chair the committees on intelligence, banking and now appropriations.
Van Drew suggested he would slot in as a moderate Republican, something of a dying breed in Congress. “There are moderate Republicans, and there are a few — not too many — left. I guess Collins is one, I’m one,” he said, an apparent reference to Maine Sen. Susan Collins. He then cut himself off because he has not formalized his switch.
The question for Van Drew is whether he will be seen as Shelby was to Alabamians 25 years ago, a lawmaker whose party had changed ideologically and would fit better in the other caucus, or if his move is more in line with that of Arlen Specter.
The late Pennsylvania senator, after more than 40 years of running as a Republican, left the GOP in the spring of 2009 after he helped negotiate the final pieces of the roughly $800 billion economic stimulus plan in the first months of the Obama administration.
Already facing conservative Patrick J. Toomey in the 2010 GOP primary, Specter’s support among conservatives collapsed and he negotiated a full switch to the Democrats, receiving the endorsements of President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden.
“My change in party will enable me to be reelected,” Specter said, a boast that his Democratic opponent used against him in a devastating ad in 2010.
Specter lost the primary, and Toomey now holds the seat.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, after years of pursuit while he served as state senator, finally coaxed Van Drew into running for Congress when the 24-year GOP incumbent retired last year.
In a year when Democrats fielded so many first-time candidates running as outsiders, Van Drew was an old-fashioned state politician with longtime support from key New Jersey power brokers.
“This was an atypical 2018 ‘flip.’ Van Drew, a dentist and former local mayor, had a uniquely popular brand in traditionally GOP Cape May County, and intimidated most top-tier Republicans from running,” David Wasserman, the House campaign expert for the independent Cook Political Report, wrote Monday.
Van Drew, 66, won the House seat last year and was immediately an odd fit in a caucus dominated by younger, more liberal colleagues. He regularly voted with Republicans on procedural votes that were effectively amendments, but his opposition to impeachment is what left him without support back home from local Democrats.
In that sense, his move resembles what Parker Griffith of Alabama did 10 years ago, when he quit the Democratic caucus during House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s drive to pass the Affordable Care Act. Like Van Drew, Griffith made the jump not even one year into office on Capitol Hill.
He lost the GOP primary to Rep. Mo Brooks (R) a few months later.
Another spectacular flameout came in 2000, when a Long Island Republican, Michael P. Forbes, lost the Democratic primary to an underfunded 71-year-old retired librarian who campaigned as “the real Democrat.” The previous year Forbes had been recruited by Democrats to join their caucus.
But Van Drew might have something that neither Griffith nor Forbes had in their party switches: a president so popular in his party that an endorsement might push local GOP leaders to rally behind someone they have tried to knock off for more than 15 years.
“Now, the questions for 2020 are 1) to what extent Trump follows through on giving cover to Van Drew in next June’s GOP primary and 2) whether Democrats are able to find a candidate capable of exacting revenge next fall,” wrote Wasserman, who now gives Republicans a slightly better than 50-50 chance of holding the seat.
The mostly rural southern New Jersey district has shifted toward Trump in recent years — he won by five percentage points there in 2016, after Obama won by eight percentage points in 2012. Van Drew’s successor in the state Senate lost a November special election to a Trump-supporting Republican.
Other successful party switchers had stories similar to Shelby’s: They were old-time white southern Democrats who no longer fit in the increasingly diverse caucus.
The late Ralph Hall spent 23 years representing the region northeast of Dallas as a Democrat in the House before switching parties in early 2004. He served another 11 years.
If Van Drew wants to follow that type of path, Shelby said, he must convince voters that it’s about ideology and not be as blatant as Specter in declaring his intentions.
“They saw right through him,” Shelby said.