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How N.J. Rep. Jeff Van Drew's Constituents Feel About His Switch Of Party

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

President Trump's campaign announced it's going to hold a rally soon in southern New Jersey. The rally will be held in the 2nd Congressional District, currently represented by Congressman Jeff Van Drew. And Van Drew recently left the Democratic Party for the GOP over impeachment. WHYY's Nick Pugliese spoke with Van Drew's constituents about his switch.

NICK PUGLIESE, BYLINE: Whether Van Drew's party switch was principled or selfish depends on who you ask here at a Wawa convenience store in the congressman's South Jersey hometown.

Patti Henry is a secretary and registered Republican who voted for Van Drew even when he was a Democrat.

PATTI HENRY: I think he chose to be his own man. So you know, he has ideals, and he thinks that the other party is what he's looking for.

PUGLIESE: But to independent voter Pary Tell, the first-term congressman is an opportunist.

PARY TELL: He claimed he was going to Washington to try and bring the two sides together. And instead, he has sided with the most divisive president we've had in our entire history.

PUGLIESE: Van Drew represents a conservative-leaning district that voted for President Trump in 2016 after twice supporting Barack Obama. Earlier in his career, Van Drew won elections for everything from mayor to state lawmaker by taking liberal stances on issues like the environment and health care while bucking Democrats on guns and gay marriage. Tell says he's always been heavily involved in the community.

TELL: You know, I could go to the grocery store on any Saturday, and he'd be out front, asking people what they thought and what they wanted.

PUGLIESE: But the House impeachment process upended the status quo. Van Drew was one of only two Democrats to vote against an impeachment inquiry. After that, his campaign's internal polling reportedly showed him in danger of losing the Democratic primary. A short time later, he was sitting next to Trump at the White House to announce he was switching parties.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JEFF VAN DREW: This is just a better fit for me. This is who I am. It's who I always was, but there was more tolerance of moderate Democrats, of Blue Dog Democrats, of conservative Democrats. And I think that's going away.

PUGLIESE: A moment later, Van Drew pointed at Trump.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VAN DREW: You have my undying support.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Thank you. Thank you very much.

VAN DREW: And - always.

TRUMP: And by the way, same way.

VAN DREW: Thank you.

TRUMP: I'm endorsing him, OK? We're endorsing him.

PUGLIESE: That announcement has blown up the race in his district on both sides. Democrats are lining up to run against him. The latest candidate is Amy Kennedy of the Kennedy political dynasty, who released this video on Monday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AMY KENNEDY: But too many of our leaders have lost their moral compass. Trump and Van Drew are symptoms of a bigger sickness infecting our country and our politics.

PUGLIESE: Meanwhile, the Republican candidates who had already been running against Van Drew are furious, both at the congressman and the national party's decision to back a longtime Democratic officeholder. One GOP candidate called Van Drew a weasel. Another candidate, former Trump administration official Bob Patterson, says Van Drew is no conservative.

BOB PATTERSON: All the money in the world isn't going to cover up his liberal voting record and the record that he had in 27 years of elected office throughout South Jersey.

PUGLIESE: To get reelected, Van Drew will need to win over voters like Donna Black. She says she doesn't much care whether Van Drew has a D or an R next to his name as long as he works hard for the district.

DONNA BLACK: That's my political party. Get to work (laughter). That's it. I don't care if you're Democrat or Republican. Just get some work done.

PUGLIESE: But first, Van Drew will have to win a primary. And for that, he's hoping his embrace of Trump will be enough for Republican voters.

For NPR News, I'm Nick Pugliese.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAY SOM'S "BAYBEE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.