Of all the political races heading to the finish line on November 3rd, one of the most interesting (aside from, well, you know) is Amy Kennedy’s run against incumbent Jeff Van Drew for New Jersey’s Second Congressional District. A recent poll shows first-time candidate Kennedy, a Democrat, leading by five points, but Van Drew, a longtime fixture in New Jersey politics who recently changed party affiliation, has launched a counteroffensive that may have evened the odds.
Ordinarily in down-ballot contests—election races that include presidential tickets—party affiliation is the major deciding factor. It’s certainly an issue in the Kennedy–Van Drew matchup, but these two candidates have offered voters much more to chew over than simply who is red or blue. And, since they’re running in Southern New Jersey—where old school power brokers and entrenched party machines still hold sway—there are other factors to consider.
She’s a Kennedy (sort of)!
A former public school teacher, Amy is married to Patrick Kennedy, a former eight-term member of Congress and son of the late Senator Edward Kennedy. The couple wed in 2011, have five children, and live in Brigantine, New Jersey.
Amy is the education director of the Kennedy Forum, a behavioral health non-profit founded by Patrick. She and Patrick make frequent public appearances (including at the 2019 Town & Country Philanthropy Summit) to discuss mental health and addiction initiatives. Patrick, who has spoken openly about his own struggles with addiction, is also the co-founder of One Mind, a non-profit focused on brain injuries and illnesses.
Opponents have accused Amy of capitalizing on her married name and connection to the Kennedy political machine to try for a seat for which she’d otherwise have little shot. She has been quick to acknowledge the advantages of the family tie, “Listen, the Kennedy family is great,” she told Politico. “I really can’t say anything more than I am so blessed to have them as relatives and family now, and have married into a family that really cares.” But she also points out that she is a fourth-generation member of a politically active Southern New Jersey family and that her father served as councilman in Atlantic County, which is part of the district she hopes to represent. “Growing up in the same place that I currently live, I’ve got the people that know me.”
Van Drew used to be a Democrat.
Van Drew was a longtime state senator who has conservative views on a number of social issues, including gun control. In 2018, he ran for the district seat and won—part of the “blue wave” that gave control of the House to Democrats that year. Fellow party members were grateful to have the district, which has swung between Republican and Democratic control in recent decades, and happy to overlook any policy differences they had with Van Drew. During his first year in office, he voted frequently with other Democrats on issues supported by House Leader Nancy Pelosi.
In December 2019, Van Drew was one of only two Democrats in the House to vote against impeaching Donald Trump. A day later he appeared at a press conference in the Oval office seated with President Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and announced he was switching parties.
“I believe that this is just a better fit for me,” he told reporters. “This is who I am. It’s who I always was but there was more tolerance of moderate Democrats, Blue Dog Democrats, conservative Democrats, and I think that is going away.” Then, in a scene that would be played repeatedly on news feeds for days to come, he turned to the President and said earnestly, “You have my undying support.”
“Switcheroo Van Drew”
Taking Van Drew’s hand, President Trump replied, “Thank you very much. And by the way, same way. I’m endorsing him.” Van Drew’s move drew instant anger from fellow Democrats and earned him the nickname, “Switcheroo Van Drew.” “Do you know what we would have done with a guy like that in my neighborhood in Paterson?” said fellow New Jersey representative Bill Pascrell Jr. Eight months later, Van Drew was given a coveted speaking slot at the Republican National Convention.
It gets better.
Earlier this year, everyone was surprised when Kennedy received the endorsement of Craig Callaway, a controversial Garden State Democratic political operative who has served time in prison for bribery. Callaway backed Kennedy’s campaign during her primary run against Bridget Callahan Harrison. Harrison had the support of George Norcross III, Southern New Jersey’s famed, but recently embattled, power broker. (The fact that Kennedy beat Norcross’s candidate was major news in New Jersey political circles.)
After the primary, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer, Callaway and Kennedy’s campaign had a falling out and then he crossed party lines and went to work for Van Drew. Callaway told the paper, the Kennedy team were, “not people who keep their word.”
One of Callaway’s specialties is the controversial-but-legal-in-New Jersey tactic of messengering mail-in ballots to voters (a messenger can only carry three ballots; for this strategy to be effective, a small army of deliverers must be deployed). In an unrelated twist, Callaway’s sister, Gwen Lewis, who is also active in Southern New Jersey politics and works on the influential Atlantic City Democratic Committee—backs Kennedy.
End of an Era?
As many have pointed out, if Amy does not win the seat, it will be the first time in decades that there is no Kennedy in Congress. Current House member Joseph Kennedy III lost a Senate primary earlier this year to Ed Markey, and will step down from Congress when his term ends on January 3rd.
Will this be the end of a powerful family's 60-year political run? Will Van Drew's 2019 political gamble be his undoing? In a year of electoral extremes, observers are embracing this as an old-fashioned horse race.
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