Amy Kennedy, a member of the renowned Democratic family, is running for the party’s nomination for the New Jersey congressional seat held by Jeff Van Drew, who became a Republican last month after voting against President Donald Trump’s impeachment.
Kennedy, a Brigantine resident married to former Rhode Island Rep. Patrick Kennedy, joins a growing field in the Democratic primary in South Jersey’s 2nd Congressional District. The battle for the seat is already shaping up to be one of the most bitter, high-profile House races of the 2020 election cycle.
“Too many of our leaders have lost their moral compass,” Amy Kennedy said in a video announcing her campaign bid. “Trump and Van Drew are symptoms of a bigger sickness infecting our country and our politics.”
Kennedy — a former public school teacher who’s currently the education director of The Kennedy Forum, where she advocates for policy change in education and mental health — joins five other candidates for the Democratic primary, where tension between establishment Democrats and progressives is running high.
Brigid Callahan Harrison, a professor at Montclair State University and Longport resident, announced her candidacy last month. She is considered the front-runner and favorite of establishment Democrats.
A day before Van Drew made his party switch official last month in a White House meeting with Trump, six of the eight county Democratic chairs in the district, as well as state Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester, all backed Harrison.
Ashley Bennett, an Atlantic County freeholder, also got into the race last month, and is looking chart a path to the Democratic nomination based on a grassroots, progressive campaign. It remains to be seen what approach Kennedy will take.
“This race is just getting started,” Kennedy said in a statement. “I believe that voters are tired of machine politics and want a transparent process to decide who will be best to represent them.”
Kennedy signaled in her campaign video that she’ll focus on job creation, the environment, mental health and the opioid addiction crisis. Her husband, son of the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, has battled drug addiction and is a leading advocate on the issue, as well as on mental illness treatment.
John Francis III, a commissioner in West Cape May; William Cunningham, a former staffer for Sen. Cory Booker; and former FBI agent Robert Turkavage, who switched from the Republican Party to the Democratic Party last month, are also running in the Democratic primary.
Van Drew’s defection to the GOP has infuriated many local Democrats, but his departure could make it harder to keep the seat blue.
Van Drew was a prized Democratic recruit to run for the South Jersey swing district vacated by longtime Republican Rep. Frank LoBiondo in 2018. Democrats knew the district was purple: Trump won it by five points in 2016, while President Barack Obama got 53% of the vote each time he ran. They sought a moderate, well-known candidate. In Van Drew, who supports gun rights and represented part of the district as a state lawmaker for years, Democrats found a candidate who captured the seat for the first time in decades.
In 2018, Van Drew handily won the Democratic primary with 57% of the vote over multiple progressive candidates. He topped Republican Seth Grossman by an 8-point margin.
Some experts say this year could be different because Van Drew’s party switch and stance on impeachment has polarized voters, potentially altering the dynamic in a general election.
“With Van Drew, you’ve got a Republican who has ticked off a large segment of the Republican base by virtue of the fact he’s been a Republican for five minutes,” said Democratic strategist Julie Roginsky. “Conversely, Democrats felt incredibly betrayed. They’ll be motivated to come out for whoever the Democratic primary (winner) is.”
Van Drew has hired Ron Filan, former political director of the New Jersey Republican State Committee and former campaign manager for LoBiondo. In an interview with NJTV, Van Drew said Trump plans to host an event for him in South Jersey sometime in January or February.
But his chances of surviving a Republican primary are not guaranteed. He has mostly voted with House Democrats, and though Trump has endorsed him and an affiliated PAC spent $250,000 on ads supporting Van Drew, several declared Republican candidates have not dropped out of the race.
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