By Donald Wittkowski and Maddy Vitale
Democrat Jeff Van Drew defeated Republican Seth Grossman to win the hotly contested 2nd Congressional District race that pitted a moderate against a staunch conservative who aligned himself with President Donald Trump.
In another key race, Cape May County Freeholder Leonard Desiderio, a Republican, easily outdistanced his Democratic challenger Jeremiah Schenerman, 63 percent to 37 percent, to capture his sixth term on the board that oversees county government.
“It’s a great victory,” said Desiderio, who also serves as mayor of Sea Isle City. “I’m very humbled by the support I received across our county, especially in my home of Sea Isle City. I look forward to continuing my work for all residents of Cape May County – Republicans, Democrats and undeclared. I work for the people and have never forgot this.”
In New Jersey’s U.S. Senate race, Democrat Bob Menendez won his third term, beating back Republican candidate Bob Hugin, a former pharmaceutical executive.
Meanwhile, Van Drew, 65, a state senator from Cape May County, appeared before his jubilant supporters at 10:30 p.m. Tuesday to claim victory. Moments before, he was introduced by the announcer as “Congressman-elect Van Drew.”
“I just wanted to come down and tell you, we won,” Van Drew exclaimed as the crowd erupted in cheers in a ballroom at the Claridge Hotel in Atlantic City.
Unofficial results show that Van Drew had 125,755 votes to 110,491 for Grossman.
Van Drew called the race a “flashpoint” election that featured two opponents with dramatically different political views. Van Drew cast himself as a moderate, while Grossman, 69, touted his conservative credentials and support for Trump.
With the retirement of U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo, the popular Republican who has represented South Jersey since 1995, the 2nd Congressional District was seen as a key battleground race for the midterm elections.
Van Drew, a veteran lawmaker who has served in both New Jersey’s Assembly and Senate, becomes the first Democrat to represent the district since former Rep. Bill Hughes, who served from 1975 to 1994.
“I want to be a very, very, very, very good congressman,” Van Drew told the crowd at Democratic headquarters.
The 2nd Congressional District encompasses a vast swath of territory in the southern part of the state – eight counties and 92 towns. It includes the Jersey Shore towns, the Delaware Bay and some of the state’s most rural communities. Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland and Salem counties make up the core areas, with parts of Burlington, Camden, Gloucester and Ocean counties also included in the district.
Addressing his supporters, Van Drew portrayed himself as a champion of South Jersey who is willing to fight the Washington establishment for his constituents. He criticized Washington’s rancorous partisan politics, suggesting that a resolution should be passed that would require all members of Congress to “behave like normal human beings.”
“Washington, as we know, is dysfunctional,” he said.
Giving a glimpse of his agenda as a new congressman, he vowed to fight a proposal by the Trump administration to open up the New Jersey coast for offshore drilling of gas and oil. Political leaders along the Jersey Shore have been united in their opposition to the Trump plan, warning of the possibility of an oil spill that could be catastrophic to tourism and the environment.
Van Drew also called for more affordable healthcare, including coverage for pre-existing medical conditions. He also pledged to fight for better healthcare and social services for the nation’s veterans.
He also stressed the need to protect South Jersey’s economy, particularly the small businesses sprinkled throughout the district.
In contrast to the celebratory atmosphere Tuesday night at Van Drew’s gathering, the mood was somber at the Republican headquarters in the Linwood Country Club.
When it came time for Grossman to concede, he said, “I’d like to thank the 1,200 people who raised money for my campaign. We really got the message out. The organization was great and, who knows, we can always come back. We really had a heck of a ride for the last eight months.”
Earlier, Grossman spoke to the media when it appeared clear the tide would go in favor of Van Drew.
“I’m disappointed,” he said of not being able to get enough votes to capture the seat.
He said while his campaign message was strong, he wasn’t so sure the effort of getting the vote out was there.
Despite doing well in some counties and winning some communities, Grossman reflected back to his time when he ran for another office.
“As one who got elected freeholder by one vote, you either win or lose,” he said.
He also commented about the Washington Post declaring Van Drew the winner after Grossman captured the Republican primary in June.
“The ordinary citizen is who kept me in the race when others wrote me off,” he said.
Atlantic County Republic Chairman Keith Davis told the crowd that Grossman was a “guy who wasn’t supposed to win,” referring to the surprise primary victory.
“This Atlantic County organization stood by him. He ran tirelessly,” Davis said.
Grossman called himself the “most consistently conservative” of all the candidates. The former Atlantic City councilman and former Atlantic County freeholder has practiced law since 1975. He is also well known as a newspaper columnist and guest host on local talk radio.
During his campaign, he blamed illegal immigrants for putting a strain on New Jersey and the nation’s welfare system, schools and police departments. He also criticized the Obamacare health system.