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New Jersey congressman's pledge of 'undying support' for Trump hangs over close House race

The congressman who represents Atlantic City made a risky political gamble last year. Now he's waiting to see whether it will pay off -- or if he's going home broke.

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Rebecca Buck
CNN — The congressman who represents Atlantic City made a risky political gamble last year. Now he's waiting to see whether it will pay off -- or if he's going home broke.

In December, Rep. Jeff Van Drew shocked his colleagues in the Democratic Party when he announced he would become a Republican, citing his discomfort with impeaching President Donald Trump. Van Drew's detractors point to a more craven political calculation: that he might not have been able to survive his Democratic primary.

The decision culminated in an Oval Office photo-op, where Van Drew pledged his "undying support" to the President. Camera shutters clicked as the two men vigorously shook hands. Eleven months later, those images are at the center of one of the hottest congressional races in the country, with Van Drew seeking reelection for the first time — and, also for the first time, running as a Republican.

His GOP debut happens to coincide with a daunting year for his new party. But he says his transition is "going fine."

"What's really good about it is, I sort of feel liberated, in that I don't have somebody telling me what you can and can't vote for," Van Drew said, "and that's what really started all of it."

Van Drew's Democratic challenger, Amy Kennedy, is a former schoolteacher born and raised in South Jersey; she is also the wife of former Rep. Patrick Kennedy, a son of the late Sen. Ted Kennedy.

The race is only nominally between Kennedy and Van Drew, however. As in down-ballot contests across the country this year, Trump looms large here — perhaps even more so because of the public embrace between Van Drew and the President.

"What's happening at the top of the ticket is really defining the down-ballot races," said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, which recently surveyed the race for New Jersey's Second Congressional District. "It's much, much harder this time around than it has been in the past to establish yourself as an independent voice."

A year ago, a close association with Trump might not have sounded like such a bad thing in South Jersey. The President won this district in 2016 by 5 points; in January, when Trump traveled there for a victory-lap rally with Van Drew, thousands of supporters lined up in the frigid cold. Van Drew, reminiscing on that night, recalled an atmosphere of such exuberance that a match "just would have self-lit."

But that was before Trump stumbled responding to a global pandemic, before millions of Americans lost their jobs, and before 2020 and the election took a sharp turn in another direction.

Now, Trump's endorsement might not be enough, if it's a net positive at all — and as the President lags in the polls with Election Day nearing, Van Drew, a former mayor and state lawmaker, is trying to remind voters of his own brand, cultivated over two decades in public service, of an independent-minded politician unconcerned with party labels.

"I don't always agree with what the Republican Party is doing or even the President is doing. And the President knew that when I got involved," Van Drew said. "I vote independently. I'm the same Jeff Van Drew I always was."

If some at-risk Republican candidates are hedging their support for Trump, however, Van Drew insists he isn't one of them.

Indeed, Van Drew's campaign website still features a large banner photo of his Oval Office handshake, swallowing up most of the screen. Van Drew was a featured speaker during the Republican National Convention over the summer. And his campaign office windows plainly bear the signs of Van Drew 2.0: not only Van Drew's logo, printed on yard signs this year in a new shade of bright GOP red, but also Trump's. The Van Drew campaign shares the office with Trump's New Jersey operation.

"I don't run away from people," Van Drew said. "...I don't think, whether you're a Republican or a Democrat, whether you always agree with the President or not, that you just betray him and walk away. I don't think that's the right thing to do."

'I felt betrayed actually'

Some Democratic voters who supported Van Drew two years ago believe that's exactly what he did to them, by switching parties just one year after they sent him to Washington.

"I felt betrayed actually, that he would do something like that," said David Burr, a Democratic voter who cast his ballot this year for Kennedy. "It just seemed like he wasn't thinking about me, he was thinking about remaining in office."

And it isn't just voters: party leaders, too, felt broadsided by Van Drew's decision. Just days before Van Drew's announcement, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer headlined a lunch reception for the congressman at a townhouse on Capitol Hill. There, according to Hoyer, he praised Van Drew for his party loyalty, despite hailing from a moderate district. Donors wrote checks for as much as $5,000 to Van Drew's reelection campaign; Hoyer, for his part, had already maxed out.

A few days later, Van Drew met privately with Trump at the White House for an hour and half. In his telling, they talked about family, reminisced about crossing paths during Trump's earlier business ventures and misadventures in Atlantic City. And by the end of their lunch, Van Drew had agreed to switch parties.

Hoyer heard the news in a phone call from his political team, as reports of the meeting began to leak to the press.

"I was not a happy camper," Hoyer said, "as you can imagine."

Van Drew maintains that the fundraiser was "set up way in advance," and that he didn't go into his meeting with the President planning to switch parties. "And frankly," Van Drew added, "I would hope that Steny supported me not just because I was a Democrat, but because I work so hard."

Either way, his decision took an important race for Democrats politically and made it personal, too. And for Democrats who felt burned by Van Drew, there's something karmic about how this election year has unfolded, with Trump and frontline Republicans struggling to survive.

"If you're an opportunist," Hoyer said, "you'd better be sure that the grass is in fact greener on the other side."

The perils of switching parties

In any political environment, party-switching is far from a sure-fire winner.

Van Drew claims to be "the only person in all of American history who ever went from the majority party to the minority party," and insists that others who have done it have been rewarded with chairmanships and greater political clout. But that's not true, even in recent political history.

In 2009, Rep. Parker Griffith of Alabama became a Republican while Democrats controlled the House. Before that, in 1999, Rep. Michael Forbes of New York did the opposite — switching from Republican to Democrat while the GOP held the House majority. In both cases, the gambits were unsuccessful: Griffith and Forbes each lost in their respective (new) party primaries the following year.

For Van Drew, at least, a contested GOP primary wasn't an issue after Republicans rolled out the red carpet for him. Along with Trump's endorsement of Van Drew, the President's reelection committee immediately invested $250,000 in advertisements thanking the congressman for switching parties and supporting the President.

But if the GOP welcomed Van Drew with open arms, his district's voters might make another calculation.

"Van Drew has been successful his entire career setting himself up as not the typical politician, not somebody who's beholden to partisan interests," said Murray, of Monmouth. "Yet many voters view his party switch exactly in that vein, that it was an act of political self-preservation."

In a sense, it was. As Van Drew prepared to vote against impeaching the President last year, his campaign team shared with him an internal poll suggesting the stance would doom him in a Democratic primary. Switching to the GOP was hardly a guaranteed return ticket to Washington — but at least it wouldn't be a certain political death sentence.

It might have been a smart bet, however. In Monmouth's poll of the race earlier this month, just 35% of voters in Van Drew's district said his party switch bothered them "a lot." Meanwhile, 51% said it wasn't an issue at all.

"I think the number one deciding factor, some people might try to say it's the fact that I changed parties. I don't believe it will be," Van Drew said. "I think the number one deciding factor is me."

A key moment in the race

The bigger issue for Van Drew, unquestionably, will be Trump — and their alliance symbolized by the moment when Van Drew pledged his "undying support, always" to the President.

It was that moment, Kennedy says, that motivated her to run in the first place.

"I had no intention of running for office," Kennedy said. "But it was hearing those words, 'I pledge my undying support to you Mr. President, always,' that was when I felt like this is someone who is absolutely not there to look out for our best interests. And that compelled me to want to run."

Now that moment has become a symbol of the campaign — and a headache for Van Drew, who like voters in his district has seen his sound bite played and replayed "over and over and over again," by his count, in attack ads this year.

During CNN's interview this week, we asked Van Drew if he regretted those words that have followed him around these months and might now cost him reelection.

"I think the words didn't explain as well what I exactly felt," Van Drew conceded. "It's not undying support that, whatever you say I'm going to do, or undying support, I agree with whatever you say. It was undying support for the presidency, for the idea of the greatness of America, for a friendship, but not necessarily that I'm going to agree with everything."

But it's unclear if will voters understand what he meant versus what he said.

"I think voters understand that when you're in the Oval Office and you're having a very exciting day and you're making a little piece of history," Van Drew said, "that sometimes we all say things."

A few minutes later, after our conversation had moved on, Van Drew stopped mid-sentence to rephrase something — and then, recognizing the humor of it, he cut himself off again. Under his mask, he might have allowed a smile.

"See how your words can come out wrong?" he said, stabbing the air playfully, laying his Jersey accent on thick. "Well, I got a chance to fix it this time."

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