SURF CITY, N.J. — Tim Alexander is working the crowd gathered in the pretty courtyard of the M.T. Burton Gallery in Surf City. Soon, the sun will set, patio lights will twinkle, Alexander will take the mic, and he will tell the people what they came to hear.
“Who’s ready to get rid of Van Drew?”
With the remnants of Hurricane Ian a few days past, the barrier island air buzzes with promise about Alexander, a former detective captain with the Atlantic County Prosecutor’s Office and Philly assistant district attorney turned civil rights attorney whose political origin story starts with being racially profiled, shot at, and improperly arrested by police in Vineland as a young Black man.
He’s a progressive Democrat brimming with ideas about local transit and increasing the region’s share of federal funding, and is clear about standing up for abortion rights. A political newcomer quick with an easygoing, jokey manner, he’s a steady and forthright campaigner who lingers after the event ends to browse the art with the gallery’s owner.
His campaign’s tagline, apt in the sprawling 2nd Congressional District in deep South Jersey where there’s little evidence of a midterm election around the bend, is “Wake up everybody!”
“You know what the reality is?“ Alexander, 56, continues in the twilight. “You bet we can get rid of Van Drew.”
“Amen!” comes the answer.
But can they?
Elected as a Democrat in 2018 in the fickle district, U.S. Rep. Jefferson Van Drew, a retired dentist and longtime state senator from Cape May County, famously switched parties in 2019 and pledged his “undying loyalty” to then-President Donald Trump.
He later stood alongside Trump at a rally in Wildwood, and appeared more recently at a book-signing with former Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway at the Smithville Inn. In September, he appeared at a news conference with Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene to promote a bill to make it a felony to perform gender-affirming care on transgender youth.
Van Drew won reelection in 2020, easily beating schoolteacher Amy Kennedy, the well-funded wife of former U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy. The Kennedys recently appeared at a fund-raiser in Cape May Court House for Alexander.
Despite a record that in theory could present a big target for Democrats, and a district electorate basically split three ways among Democrat, Republican, and unaffiliated, the seat is considered “solidly” in Van Drew’s camp.
Van Drew was one of 147 Republican House members to vote against certifying election results on Jan. 6, 2021. Since then, he’s voted against codifying Roe v. Wade into federal law, against the Inflation Reduction Act, against the gun-safety bill signed into law this summer, against the Right to Contraception Act, and against the Defense Authorization Act, as well as a resolution of support for Finland and Sweden joining NATO.
However, he also voted for the Bipartisan Infrastructure Act, and, on the second vote, for the PACT Act, which expands coverage for veterans exposed to burn tar pits.
Most political observers consider Van Drew a lock to win reelection, with his long record of winning elections and deep roots to people and institutions in the district, and constituent service in South Jersey. He also has the benefit of a redrawn district that gifted him half of Republican-leaning Ocean County, formerly in the 3rd District, represented by Rep. Andy Kim.
Alexander begs to differ.
“It couldn’t be more wrong,” he said in an interview.
Van Drew’s campaign manager, Ron Filam, did not respond to a request for an interview or comment about the campaign.
With a background in law enforcement and civil rights and ideas for police training reform, he seemed a natural choice for a candidate this cycle. But since the U.S. Supreme Court decision that overturned Roe v. Wade, Alexander says voters tell him their priorities are abortion rights, inflation and the economy, veterans needs, and education.
”Jeff won this district as a Democrat,” Alexander said. “It means this is not a solid red or Republican. His calculations over the last few years, his MAGA Republican alignment, he did whatever the marching orders are.
“My issue is, how is he voting? How is [he] representing South Jersey? What are you doing for us?”
Alexander says the feedback he’s getting around the district, which encompasses Cape May, Atlantic, Salem, Cumberland, and parts of Ocean and Gloucester Counties, has been positive, including from some Republicans who ”come up to me and say: ‘I can’t believe it. His voting record is atrocious.’”
Collective Future, a group that works to increase Black political representation, funded a recent poll that concluded that Van Drew was “vulnerable with general election voters.”
His eight-point lead over Alexander becomes a statistical tie, the group said, “after voters hear positive messaging for Alexander and negative messaging against Van Drew.”
“Given enough funding, Tim Alexander could flip this district blue,” the group said.
But the gap in resources is vast.
Van Drew reported having $925,000 in cash on hand on Sept. 30, from nearly $3 million raised, according to Federal Election Commission reports. Alexander’s latest filings, updated Friday through Sept. 30, showed he’d raised $441,883, and had about $38,794 on hand.
“We definitely see a big opportunity,” said Zacharia Hartman, Alexander’s campaign manager. “Our resource shortage isn’t a secret.”
For now, they’re focused on digital and radio ads and on-the-ground events. He has hired Atlantic City’s Stephanine Dixon, a veteran of several national campaigns, including Pete Buttigieg’s, to oversee the field operation.
Alexander has endorsements from the Communications Workers of America, the powerful New Jersey Education Association, and the door-knocking powerhouse Unite Here Local 54.
Bob McDevitt, president of Local 54, which represents 10,000 casino workers, said his members would be canvassing closer to Election Day.
“The one thing for certain is Jeff Van Drew does not support working people,” said McDevitt, whose union has endorsed three Democrats and one Republican, Rep. Chris Smith. “His love relationship with Donald Trump is all I need to know to know that I’m for Tim Alexander. But it’s deeper than that.
“He’s a very good candidate,” he said. “This is the kind of people we need in elective office. He’s a genuine, decent person. He has a lot of experience outside of politics.”
On Long Beach Island, where a couple of women wore “Roe Roe Roe Your Vote” T-shirts, Pat Kennedy of Waretown and Marianne Clemente of Barnegat were talking about the similarities between Alexander and Andy Kim, elected in 2018.
They would know.
Until the districts were redrawn this year, the women were voters in the 3rd District, where in 2018 Kim upset incumbent Rep. Tom MacArthur, who had sponsored an amendment to repeal provisions of the Affordable Care Act for people with preexisting conditions.
Kim won with a groundswell of volunteers like Kennedy and Clemente, both of whom are now post-carding, fund-raising, and organizing events for Alexander.
“A lot of people in our area are surprised when they find out Andy’s no longer the guy” in their district, Kennedy said.
As for Van Drew, Kennedy said: “He voted against all the bills pertaining to women. What is he for?”
Clemente said, “He’s running away from Tim.” She noted that Van Drew canceled an event at which a group of Atlantic County women were set to protest in The Handmaid’s Tale costumes.
So far, Van Drew has mostly kept quiet, leaving the South Jersey Jeopardy! and Eagles game commercial slots to incumbents Kim and Rep. Donald Norcross, and Kim’s opponent, Bob Healey, a former punk=rock singer turned yacht executive.
Van Drew skipped an earlier debate at a local high school sponsored by the League of Women Voters, saying it was a biased organization. The William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Stockton University and the Press of Atlantic City are cosponsoring a debate Wednesday that both men have said they will attend.