Officials said Saturday that Rep. Jeff Van Drew of New Jersey, a vocally anti-impeachment Democrat, will join the Republican Party in the coming days – delivering a political jolt to Democrats ahead of next week’s expected vote to impeach the president.
The decision, they said, came after Van Drew joined President Donald Trump for a lengthy Friday meeting, during which Trump urged him to join the GOP.
Three Democratic officials familiar with Van Drew’s discussions in recent days said he has decided to switch parties; two said his staff was informed of his decision Saturday. The White House meeting was confirmed by a Trump administration official and one of the Democratic officials.
Van Drew, his chief of staff and his communications director did not respond to requests for comment Saturday.
Van Drew, who won a previously Republican seat in 2018, has been a critical voice opposing impeachment inside the Democratic ranks, saying the process is too divisive and comes too close to the 2020 presidential election to be worth pursuing. A member of the centrist Blue Dog Coalition, Van Drew has positioned himselfat the rightmost flank of his party, though he has generally voted in line with the leadership on major bills.
Van Drew and Rep. Collin Peterson, a veteran Minnesota lawmaker who represents a much more conservative district than Van Drew’s, were the only two Democrats to vote against a House resolution in October formalizing the impeachment inquiry.
Van Drew’s decision to oppose impeachment – and his willingness to proclaim his views on the GOP-friendly Fox News Channel – badly alienated Democratic voters in his district, sparking a primary challenge that threatened his prospects for reelection. Brigid Callahan Harrison, a Montclair State University political science professor, signaled last month that she is likely to run for the Democratic nomination.
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 that only 24 percent thought he should be reelected, with 58 percent wanting another Democrat nominated for the seat.
The memo was circulated widely Saturday by Democrats eager to argue that a party switch by Van Drew would be motivated by political self-preservation rather than principle.
But a party switch on the eve of a historic impeachment vote would undoubtedly be politically damaging to Democrats, who have listened for weeks as Republicans claimed that their attempt to oust the president would backfire at the ballot box.
In an interview Saturday, Harrison blasted Van Drew for potentially putting his own political career above the constitutional matters at stake with Trump’s impeachment. She said an announcement regarding her campaign plans is “imminent.”
“He may think this is a politically expedient move and that Republican voters will embrace him,” she said. “I think Republicans, Democrats and independents all recognize a traitor and value loyalty. And I don’t think that a politically motivated decision is the right way to go when our constitutional democracy is a stake.”
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, also lashed out at Van Drew in a statement Saturday evening, calling the expected switch “cynical and desperate.”
“Jeff Van Drew has chosen his political career over our Constitution,” he said, adding that the lawmaker was “willing to enable Donald Trump just to try to salvage his own election.”
Three Republicans already have filed for the GOP nomination in the 2nd Congressional District, which encompasses the state’s rural and suburban southern tip. One, businessman David Richter, has signaled plans to self-fund an aggressive campaign.
Van Drew, who has endorsed Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., for president and voted for virtually every piece of major Democratic legislation, could be an odd fit in a Republican primary.
But an enthusiastic public endorsement from Trump could ease Van Drew’s path. The White House official and the Democratic official said that, should Van Drew proceed, Trump probably would tout the switch at a public event next week.
Rumors about a potential party switch had been swirling all month, and they heated up after several prominent local Democratic officials said they would not endorse Van Drew’s bid for a second term.
Van Drew denied Tuesday that he was switching parties as he confirmed he would ultimately vote against impeachment. “I’m not changing anything – just doing my job,” he said in a brief interview. “I’m still a Democrat, right here.”
Asked whether Republicans had approached him about a party switch, he said, “I’m not talking about other people and what they’re doing.”
But by Friday morning, a full panic settled in among the state’s Democrats when Van Drew declined to continue supporting legislation sponsored by other New Jersey lawmakers.
Garden State Democrats spent Friday and Saturday making repeated calls to Van Drew to try to stave off the defection, having invested millions of dollars in his 2018 campaign to win a seat they had not held in 24 years.
But he proved difficult to reach, and by late Saturday afternoon, the state’s Democratic strategists had given up and were instead focused on trying to beat him in November 2020.
As recently as Nov. 21, Van Drew told constituents he was “absolutely not changing” his party affiliation, according to a Press of Atlantic City account of a telephone town hall he held.
Van Drew, a longtime state legislator, was elected last year after the retirement of longtime GOP Rep. Frank LoBiondo. He scored an eight-point victory over Republican Seth Grossman, who saw GOP groups withdraw support after a series of racist remarks became public.
While Van Drew has been counted among a group of moderate freshmen from GOP-leaning districts, his seat is hardly deep-red territory: Trump won the district by five points in 2016; Barack Obama won it by eight points in 2012.