Editor’s Note: Douglas Heye is the ex-deputy chief of staff to former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, a GOP strategist, and a CNN political commentator. Follow him on Twitter @dougheye. The opinions expressed in this commentary are the author’s own. View more opinion on CNN.
Who wins and who loses now that New Jersey Congressman Jeff Van Drew has switched to the Republican side of the House – in the middle of an impeachment and just ahead of an election? It depends on how you look at it.
In substance, Van Drew’s switch over his opposition to President Donald Trump’s impeachment won’t change much. The impeachment vote will be exactly the kind of partisan vote Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she wanted to avoid; Democrats will overwhelmingly support impeachment, Republicans will unanimously oppose it. And in a House of 435, the switch of one freshman member will not change much, if anything, on other contentious votes.
But it has significance, and here’s why.
After the release of former special counsel Robert Mueller’s report, President Donald Trump – with an assist from Attorney General William Barr – essentially defined the report before anyone had a chance to read it.
While everyone else tried to catch up, the President claimed that he was fully exonerated, despite the report not explicitly saying that,
Whatever happens procedurally over the coming weeks, it is clear that the United States Senate will not convict Trump. This will allow Trump to declare himself not only innocent, but the victim of a “witch hunt” so rigged (to use one of Trump’s favorite terms) that a Democrat left the party over it. Expect to hear this loudly as well as over and over. Any remarks on impeachment by Trump will include this latest, and best, talking point. For that sliver of voters who have not made up their mind about impeachment, it could be a significant quiver in Trump’s arrow.
Will the move secure Van Drew’s tenure in Congress? No one can be sure.
Van Drew’s new party – in Washington, at least – is lining up behind its newest member, and will ostensibly help with fundraising and finding Van Drew a new staff. Still, he faces criticism from some Republicans who view the flip as an opportunistic move.
But there will be understandable resentment, too, among Republican voters in the district for a new Republican who endorsed Sen. Cory Booker for President and voted against Trump’s agenda 93% of the time, according to FiveThirtyEight, and with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi 90% of the time, according to ProPublica (though he voted “present” and not for Pelosi for Speaker). As people in politics often say, “the ads write themselves.”
While working in House Republican leadership, I had many conversations with colleagues about how Van Drew’s congressional district might be trending more Democratic. Barack Obama carried the district twice, and while Donald Trump won the district, he did so with only 50.6% of the vote. Frank LoBiondo, Van Drew’s predecessor, who announced his retirement in 2017, was the only Republican who could keep the southern Jersey district in Republican hands.
That the district immediately went into the Democrats column gave credence to the theory. Opposing impeachment made Van Drew’s path to reelection as a Democrats tricky. Now a Republican, Van Drew’s switch will show whether the “LoBiondo Theory” was really true all along.