New Jersey

Distinct Challengers All Want to Beat GOP Rep. in South Jersey

Will Cunningham, Brigid Callahan Harrison and Amy Kennedy are among 5 challengers running for the Democratic nomination to run against Jeff Van Drew in November.


The party "switcharoo" by U.S. Rep. Jeff Van Drew of South Jersey, from Democrat to Republican, perhaps faded from public consciousness this year after the rise of the coronavirus pandemic, but it generated wall-to-wall attention late last year as President Donald Trump faced impeachment.

After voting against impeaching Trump, New Jersey Van Drew switched parties to Republican, and posed for a handshake with the president in the Oval Office - a rarity for any member of the House of Representatives, let alone a freshman representative. In January, Trump held a rally attended by thousands in Wildwood, part of the freshman Congressman's South Jersey district.

Because of Van Drew's party switch, the district only stayed blue for 11 months after millions of dollars spent on Van Drew's campaign in a nationwide Democratic effort to reclaim the House of Representatives. But when New Jerseyans go to the polls for the primary July 7 - or more likely their mailbox this week - they can choose between five challengers vying to get in the ring with Van Drew in November:

  • Will Cunningham, a progressive activist who overcame homelessness to attend Brown University and formerly worked on Capitol Hill for Sen. Cory Booker
  • Brigid Callahan Harrison, a Montclair State professor, political commentator and textbook author
  • Amy Kennedy, a mental health advocate and former public school teacher
  • Retired FBI agent Robert Turkavage
  • John Francis III, a West Cape May commissioner and environmental activist

Of the five, Kennedy, Harrison and Cunningham pose the stiffest challenge; Turkavage and Francis did not meet fundraising or spending thresholds to qualify for a June debate in the race.

Harrison and Kennedy have the higher-profile endorsements in the race - Harrison is supported by Senators Cory Booker and Bob Menendez, along with state Senate President Steve Sweeney and several labor unions. Kennedy has the support of Gov. Phil Murphy, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and Martin Luther King III.

Who will come out on top is anyone's guess in a nasty primary that saw attack ads and cutting criticism of each other's donors as well as help from high places.

Machines up and running

Kennedy has the support of the Atlantic County Democrats, who make up about 40 percent of the primary turnout on average, said Patrick Murray, a pollster at Monmouth University. He is not running polls for this race but has followed along.

Harrison has the support of party chairs in six other South Jersey counties, who also called on Van Drew to return their past donations to him, the Press of Atlantic City reported.

It's a strange arrangement for Harrison, who publicly criticized Sweeney in her media career but in the race was called out for being beholden to party boss George Norcross, who backs Sweeney.

"There are some who would like to portray this race as a battle between the 'machine' candidate Harrison against the reform candidate Kennedy. But I think that only goes so far," said Ben Dworkin, who heads Rowan University's Institute for Public Policy and Citizenship.

The Atlantic County Democratic chair, Craig Callaway, is known to help voters get their ballots submitted, contributing to the high turnout. The Press reported that Callaway appeared to have voted twice in this primary after he signed his name to another voter's ballot. So one could say it's a separate machine that's helping Kennedy.

"The reform candidate has played quote unquote 'machine' politics, and the 'machine' candidate has criticized them in the past," Dworkin said.

That local party support determines where candidates "bracket" on the ballot, meaning which candidates they're next to, Murray said. Being left off the bracket can make a difference of as much as 20-30 points in a primary.

Booker actually moved himself out of the bracket in Atlantic County so that his name could be next to Harrison's.

Drew Angerer
U.S. Rep. Jeff Van Drew of New Jersey, shakes hands with U.S. President Donald Trump in the Oval Office of the White House on December 19, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Family ties

A headline-grabbing feature of the race has been Amy Kennedy's ties to the family that had at least one member in a Washington office for 47 straight years.

That streak ended when her husband, former Rhode Island Rep. Patrick Kennedy, ended his last term and went into mental health and addiction advocacy work. But now the Brigantine couple wants to head to Washington, and the name has come up again and again. A PAC even sent out a mailer that read "ask not what your country can do for you, ask what Amy KENNEDY can do for your country," referring to a famous quote from former president John F. Kennedy.

Murray, the Monmouth pollster, is keeping an eye on how the name will affect the race.

"This is not Massachusetts," he said. "You don’t see the name Kennedy in New Jersey and automatically think, 'Oh, it’s that family.' It could be one of the Kennedys you went to high school with.”

But the Kennedy association has helped financially - Patrick put $500,000 into a super PAC to elect his wife, the New Jersey Globe reported. And Kennedy has collected more than 1,000 individual donations from Massachusetts residents via ActBlue, a campaign donation platform, data from the Federal Election Commission shows.

Harrison has received thousands from the electricians, ironworkers, other unions and a Norcross-affiliated PAC. The General Majority PAC reported a $210,000 ad spend on Harrison's behalf late last month.

On the issues

Despite the two wings of Jersey's Democrats using the race as a "proxy battle" between their preferred people, there aren't as many differences between Harrison and Kennedy as it would seem, Dworkin said.

Cunningham's platform calls for Medicare for All, legalizing marijuana and supports the Green New Deal.

Both Harrison and Kennedy call for high-quality affordable health care and keeping the Affordable Care Act in place. Each wants paid family leave and more protections for the gig economy.

"Outside of marijuana they have they exact same positions. There isn't a lot of difference here," Dworkin said.

Harrison supports the federal legalization and taxation of marijuana, framing it as a criminal justice issue that has led to thousands of people being incarcerated. Kennedy wants to decriminalize it and expand drug courts, which can resolve drug cases without prison time.

Sights set on November

Though the Democrats are still running against each other for another week, Van Drew is already in their cross hairs. The first words you see on Harrison’s website say he “betrayed our trust.”

Kennedy, in a statement through a spokesperson, said Van Drew’s party switch “abandoned the people he had been elected to represent.”

“President Obama won this district twice in 2008 and 2012. It's clear that the people of South Jersey are ready for change, and they won't stand for another elected official that cares more about serving himself than our community," she said.

Matthew Frankel, a spokesperson for Harrison, noted that she was ready to battle with Van Drew from the get-go, planning to “primary” him before he switched parties.

“In order for us to beat Jeff Van Drew in a general election, we’re going to need everyone,” Frankel said. “We have to keep our eye on the ball.”

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