How progressives got steamrolled in New Jersey

 In Politics

Sen. Jeff Van Drew (1st District) at New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie farewell address Jan. 9, 2018 in Trenton, New Jersey. (M. Scott Mahaskey/Politico)

State Sen. Jeff Van Drew raises his hand at New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s farewell address on Jan. 9 in Trenton. Van Drew is viewed as having the inside track with national Democrats for his campaign for the open seat in the 2nd Congressional District. | M. Scott Mahaskey/POLITICO


The party establishment flexes its muscles in a bid to flip a Republican House seat.


Jeff Van Drew has voted against raising the minimum wage and gay marriage. He often sides with industry on environmental issues and carries an A rating from the NRA. And he’s the odds-on favorite to be New Jersey’s newest Democratic congressman.

In the party’s first real crack at winning the South Jersey-based district held by retiring Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R-N.J.) for more than two decades, the Democratic Party establishment — at every level — is throwing its collective weight behind Van Drew, leaving local progressives baffled, frustrated and more than a little angry.

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The race is a showcase for whether the Democratic Party nationally will tolerate politicians like Van Drew, a state senator, in the name of winning the majority in the U.S. House for the first time since 2011. It highlights Democrats’ struggles to blend their stated ideals on issues like diversity and gun control with the political realities of a district, in this case a working-class bastion that voted for President Donald Trump by 4 points after twice voting for President Barack Obama.

Nationally, the Democratic Party has seen a surge of progressive activism in the wake of Trump’s election, and New Jersey’s 2nd Congressional District is no exception. So liberal activists, who frequently gathered in front of LoBiondo’s office to demand a town hall meeting that never came, have turned their ire on Democratic leaders.

“It makes me feel a bit insulted and betrayed,” said Alison Arne, an Atlantic County activist who co-chairs the group Actions Together New Jersey Atlantic County.

Two other candidates for the Democratic nomination to replace LoBiondo fit the mold of 2018 Democrats.

Will Cunningham is an openly gay African-American attorney who grew up poor and despite being homeless at one point as a teen, went to an Ivy League university and became an Obama administration official, and an adviser to Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.).

Tanzie Youngblood is a retired African-American teacher and military mom. And Nate Kleinman, a farmer who runs a nonprofit and was active in the Occupy movement, was dubbed the first “Occupy candidate” when he sought a House seat in Pennsylvania six years ago.

Democrats spent two decades struggling to recruit viable candidates to run in the district against LoBiondo, who first won the seat in 1994. Now, Van Drew will almost certainly win the primary and is heavily favored to win the seat in November.

“The DCCC needs to take a look at themselves in the mirror and make sure we’re reflective of who we’re sending to D.C.,” Cunningham said of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which has all but officially thrown in with Van Drew after trying for at least a decade to recruit him to run there. “We as the Democratic Party, if we’re going to talk the talk, we’ve got to walk the walk.”

The anger has spilled out into public forums. At one, high school student Emily McGrath confronted Van Drew — who had one day earlier told her class he did not accept donations from the NRA — about a $1,000 donation she had discovered. The videotaped confrontation, in which McGrath said “Senator, you lied,” made headlines around the state.

But don’t look for a nail-biter primary like in Illinois, where conservative Democrat Dan Lipinski narrowly survived a primary challenge last month.

The 2nd District, New Jersey’s southernmost and largest geographically, includes Atlantic City’s gleaming casino towers, farmland and the poorest county in the state. It’s more working class than its New Jersey counterparts to the north, with the lowest percentage of college-educated residents in the state. And Van Drew has represented the district’s most Republican portion in the state Senate and Assembly for 16 years, comfortably winning reelection despite several major GOP efforts against him.

To have a Democratic candidate who’s already popular in the most conservative part of the congressional district is like a dream to Democrats more concerned with flipping a Republican House seat than with ideological purity. They point to Conor Lamb, the conservative Democrat who won a deep-red House district in Pennsylvania in March.

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