Nearly all of Representative Jeff Van Drew’s Washington staff resigned over the weekend as both Democrats and Republicans harshly criticized the moderate Democrat’s apparent decision to switch parties just as the House prepares to undertake its historic vote on articles of impeachment against President Trump.
Mr. Van Drew, who hails from a conservative district that for 24 years before his election was represented by a Republican, is one of only two Democrats who voted against rules laying out the impeachment process.
“Sadly, Congressman Van Drew’s decision to join the ranks of Republican Party led by Donald Trump does not align with the values we brought to this job when we joined his office,’’ according to a letter from five staff members, a copy of which was provided to The New York Times.
NBC News reported that a sixth staffer had also resigned. A seventh person also resigned, according to a person familiar with the situation in Mr. Van Drew’s office, leaving his chief of staff as the sole remaining staff member in his Washington office.
Mr. Van Drew’s decision drew bipartisan condemnations and is certain to become a dominant issue when he runs for re-election next year.
A Republican running for his seat called him a weasel who was not to be trusted. A Democratic foe labeled him a traitor. The governor of New Jersey said he lacked the courage to protect the Constitution.
“This is the end of his career,” said David Richter, a Republican businessman who has been campaigning for Mr. Van Drew’s seat in Congress since August and referred to him on Sunday as a “weasel.”
On Monday, Brigid Harrison, a professor of political science at Montclair State University who had been taking steps toward challenging Mr. Van Drew as a Democrat in a primary, said that she, too, would run to replace him.
“I think he’s a traitor,” said Professor Harrison. “I think it is something that is emblematic of the cynicism of our country.”
In a separate statement announcing her campaign, she said that Mr. Van Drew had “ignored the voices of our community and has instead sold his soul, cutting back-room deals with the White House.”
Even before word of Mr. Van Drew’s apparent plans became public, Professor Harrison said, she had met with Democratic county leaders in the district, who had declined to sign a letter backing Mr. Van Drew for re-election and had criticized his anti-impeachment stance.
“If I have to put $1 million of my own money into this race, to win, I’m prepared to do it.”
Mr. Van Drew did not return calls. But the freshman congressman who is up for re-election next year has told aides he is preparing to switch parties as soon as this week.
In an interview with Tucker Carlson on Fox News several weeks ago, Mr. Van Drew said Mr. Trump would likely survive an impeachment process given Republican control of the Senate and that voters, not Congress, should decide Mr. Trump’s fate.
“At the end of the day, I’m afraid all we’re going to have is a failed impeachment,” he said, adding: “The bottom line is he’s still going to be the president of the United States, and the bottom line is he is still going to be the candidate of the Republican Party. So why don’t we let the people do the impeachment by voting in the electoral process the way that we usually do.”
Mr. Richter, 53, said he had been told by Republican leaders in the district that crosses Cape May, Cumberland and Atlantic Counties that Mr. Trump was expected to endorse Mr. Van Drew. Still, he said he had no plans to step aside to clear an easy path to the Republican nomination for Mr. Van Drew.
“I’m in this thing all the way through,” said Mr. Richter, a former chief executive of a publicly traded construction management firm, Hill International, who personally contributed $300,000 of the $413,000 his campaign raised during the first quarter.
“I’ve talked to a lot of Republicans,” he said. “Nobody is happy about the switch.”
Mr. Richter added that any support Mr. Trump offered Mr. Van Drew, in exchange for the distraction a high-profile Democratic defection could offer in a week when the president faces impeachment, would quickly fade once Mr. Trump had “gotten what he wanted.”
The state Republican chairman, Doug Steinhardt, could not be reached for comment. Mike Testa Jr., a Republican who was elected in November to Mr. Van Drew’s former State Senate seat and who is a chairman of Mr. Trump’s re-election effort in New Jersey, did not return calls.
The staff members who resigned include Mr. Van Drew’s communications director, director of constituency relations and legislative director.
The resignation of the five staff members was reported by Politico.
In addition to Mr. Richter, Mr. Van Drew could face two other already-announced opponents, Brian Fitzherbert and Bob Patterson, if he pursues the Republican nomination.
“He’s doing what he’s done for nearly 30 years,” Mr. Fitzherbert said of Mr. Van Drew. “Political survivorship. It’s desperation.”
Democrats were equally unsparing in their criticism.
The state’s powerful Senate president, Stephen M. Sweeney, vowed retribution as the national Democratic Party offered jobs to the members of Mr. Van Drew’s congressional staff who had quit “to stand up for their Democratic values.”
“Jeff Van Drew’s decision to switch parties is a betrayal to every voter who supported him in 2018,” Mr. Sweeney said in a statement. “But now he is out of the Democratic Party and in November, we are going to take him out of Congress.”
Gov. Philip D. Murphy, speaking on CNN, predicted that Mr. Van Drew would be defeated.
“He’s putting politics over the Constitution,” Mr. Murphy said. “I think it’s ridiculous.”
Mr. Van Drew’s district sprawls across the southern part of New Jersey, from Atlantic City west toward the Pennsylvania border.
If Professor Harrison, who lives in Longport in Mr. Van Drew’s district, wins the support of established Democratic Party leaders in the district, she may face a primary challenge of her own.
The left-leaning Working Families Alliance issued a statement late Saturday laying blame for the debacle on George Norcross III, a Democratic power broker who is a member of the Democratic National Committee and who had supported Mr. Van Drew’s political climb from mayor to state senator to congressman.
“This is a direct result of the South Jersey Democratic machine’s power — a machine that engineered Van Drew’s rise knowing his values were out of step with the party,” said Sue Altman, director of the alliance, an affiliate of the national Working Families Party.
On Sunday, she said she anticipated insurgent Democratic challengers.
“I think there’s still some very qualified candidates who are going to emerge,” Ms. Altman said. “I would imagine there’s a real thirst for an anti-machine candidate.”
Professor Harrison, a 54-year-old mother of three who has taught at Montclair for more than two decades, said she did not consider herself a political insider.
“I don’t think of myself as being establishment,” she said.
Michael Gold contributed reporting.
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