Van Drew leads in New Jersey’s 2nd District, but race still too close to call

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The race in New Jersey’s 2nd Congressional District, the most closely watched election in the state, remained too close to call late Tuesday with Democrat-turned-Republican Rep. Jeff Van Drew leading Democrat Amy Kennedy by a relatively narrow margin.

But with an untold and potentially large number of provisional ballots that won’t be counted for a week, things were looking grim for Kennedy.

“We deserve a leader who will fight for better paying jobs, for the protections our workers need, for relief for small businesses and better healthcare," Kennedy said late Tuesday in a Facebook Live broadcast. "I’m hopeful that South Jersey will get the representation it deserves. Thank you all, and we move on."

Van Drew declared victory at a campaign gathering in Sea Isle City, The Press of Atlantic City reported, although The Associated Press had not called the race. With 69 percent of precincts reporting, Van Drew held a lead of just under 4 points — 51 percent to 47.4 percent.

Early returns showed Kennedy leading Van Drew in Atlantic County, where Democrats hoped to run up the score, by just 4,000 votes.

Van Drew could not be reached for comment.

Kennedy had to leave the campaign trail on Monday to self-quarantine because she had been in close proximity to someone who tested positive for Covid-19.

Complicating the election is an untold number of provisional ballots from same-day voters that won’t be counted for at least a week. Republicans believe those ballots will skew heavily in their favor because President Donald Trump sewed mistrust in mail-in balloting. Mail-in ballots can continue to arrive in the district for a week if they’re postmarked by Election Day. Those that don’t have postmarks will be accepted until 8 p.m. Thursday.

The race between Van Drew, a 67-year-old dentist who a year into his first term in office switched parties from Democrat to Republican and pledged his “undying support’ to Trump, and Kennedy, a 41-year-old school teacher who married into the famous dynasty, largely revolved around the president.

In 2016, Trump carried the 2nd District — which includes all or part of eight counties in South Jersey, including some Philadelphia suburbs as well as the resort towns of Cape May and Atlantic City — by about 5 points. Former President Barack Obama won it in 2008 and 2012.

Kennedy was able to leverage her family connections to out-raise Van Drew during the campaign. She is married to former Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.), the son of the late Sen. Edward Kennedy.

Trump’s relative popularity in the district made Van Drew hesitant to openly oppose him when he was a Democrat. Facing pressure from party leaders to vote to impeach the president and the likely loss of the support of the South Jersey Democratic machine that helped build his political career, Van Drew decided to vote against impeaching Trump and switch parties soon thereafter.

Kennedy, a native of the district who in the primary defeated a candidate backed by the South Jersey Democratic machine, ran an anti-Trump campaign that galvanized progressives in the general election.

She attacked Van Drew over Trump’s response to the coronavirus and said that, unlike Van Drew, she would not “trade her South Jersey values to benefit myself.”

Van Drew interpreted a vague statement by Kennedy to mean that she favors defunding police departments and he often echoed the president’s rhetoric, including saying he believed a theory most scientists are skeptical of that the coronavirus came from a lab in China.

He also hired controversial Democratic operative Craig Callaway — who has been convicted of corruption and runs a mail-in ballot operation — to attempt to cut into Kennedy’s advantage in Democratic areas of the district.

Van Drew started to put some distance between himself and Trump late in the campaign, telling CNN that his pledge of ‘undying support” was more to the institution than the president himself.

“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,” he said.

The district is more rural and working class than some of the more suburban, wealthier districts farther north that used to be solidly Republican but have turned Democratic amid backlash to Trump.

A Kennedy come-from-behind victory would be a blow to Trumpism, but also to the Democratic machine run by insurance executive George Norcross and state Senate President Steve Sweeney that has long exercised an iron grip over Democratic politics in the southern half of the state.

She easily defeated a machine-backed opponent, Montclair State University Professor Brigid Harrison, in the Democratic primary, and while Norcross issued a statement on primary night calling for unity, a super PAC unofficially controlled by him as well as the Carpenters Union, which generally supports his causes, did not spend money to help Kennedy.

A spokesperson for Norcross said in October that he had earmarked money to help Kennedy in the district through a House Democratic super PAC.

A Van Drew victory would show that even as many wealthier, traditionally Republican areas of the state turned against the president and became favorable territory for Democrats, his appeal endures in the more working class areas of the state.

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