Tuesday’s rally by President Donald Trump in Wildwood cleared the GOP field in this year’s 2nd Congressional District race for U.S. Rep. Jeff Van Drew, R-2nd, and drove home for Democrats “what they are up against in the election,” according to one political analyst.

Seeing the president of the United States “come to your district to embrace (Van Drew) — such a major media event … you’re realizing you are going up against quite a bit of firepower,” said John Froonjian, executive director of Stockton University’s William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy.

About 160,000 tickets were requested for the event, according to the Trump campaign, more than for any other rally Trump has held. Seven thousand were admitted, and thousands more stood in the cold to watch the rally on large screens just outside the Wildwoods Convention Center.

“On the Republican side, it essentially cleared the field. While Bob Patterson is still in the mix, Van Drew’s best-funded challenger has left for another district, and everyone else left the race,” Froonjian said.

From here, the Democrats go into a primary race, working to differentiate themselves from the pack while shoring up money and organizational power.

Van Drew and the Republicans, on the other hand, can start focusing on the general election and the 40% of voters in the district not affiliated with either party.

Two Democrats have recently established themselves as the strongest, said Carl Golden, a former political consultant to moderate Republican candidates Tom Kean and Christie Todd Whitman who is now a senior contributing analyst with the Hughes Center.

They are Longport’s Brigid Harrison, a Montclair State University professor and the first to enter the race, and Brigantine’s Amy Kennedy, a mental health advocate, former teacher and member of the nationally powerful Kennedy family.

“A primary is different,” Golden said, because those who vote are party diehards who tend to follow direction from party leaders. “Two things are most important: money and people on the ground. Kennedy and Harrison have that.”

Other Democrats, like Atlantic County Freeholder Ashley Bennett, West Cape May Commissioner John Francis, and House Oversight Committee staffer and Vineland resident Will Cunningham, will find it difficult to raise the kind of money needed and to gather and build the organization and professional staff to win a primary, Golden predicted.

And for Brigantine’s Robert Turkavage, a retired FBI agent who just changed parties from Republican to Democrat, the hopes of getting organizational support are slim.

Early on, Harrison got the endorsement of six of the eight county party chairs in the district, as well as from state Senate President Steve Sweeney and Atlantic County Democratic Assemblymen Vince Mazzeo and John Armato, and from unions like Unite Here Local 54.

“She started earlier (than anyone) and locked up a lot of organizational support, including the support of the Senate president, which signals the support of the Camden County political organization and George Norcross,” Froonjian said.

Kennedy countered with the endorsement of the Atlantic City Democratic Committee, controlled by the Callaway political organization. She also underscored her family’s connections to famous national leaders by bringing Martin Luther King III with her to the Trump rally protest.

“I have to say, Harrison seems to be in a stronger position in terms of organizational support. That’s really important in a primary,” Froonjian said.

Now, Kennedy has to spend money in the primary to counteract that, he said.

We won’t know how much she has raised until the Federal Election Commission releases financial reports April 15, Froonjian said.

“Right now, Kennedy has her name associated with American political icons. How strong that is in 2020 remains to be seen,” Froonjian said.

Much will depend on whether Kennedy can swing Atlantic County Democratic Chairman Mike Suleiman to her side, both Golden and Froonjian said.

“If Atlantic County were to swing to her, it would be a major development,” Golden said.

Suleiman said Friday he has no intention of endorsing anyone until after the Atlantic County Democratic Convention on March 8, when municipal chairs, elected officials and members of the county committee will vote on who gets the group’s backing and the best spot on the primary ballot.

Vote margins will be narrow, Golden predicted.

“No one is going to run away with this. Obviously that raises a question about being able to put (the party) together again in time for November,” Golden said.

While it’s typical to have a “unity breakfast and hug over bacon and eggs” after a primary fight, Golden said, it’s also typical to “then leave and do what you feel like anyway.”

“If they start attacking each other, the eventual leader may come out damaged,” Froonjian said. “You can be sure the Van Drew campaign will be watching every name-calling and nasty broadside. ... It just makes it harder for the eventual nominee to get going and to unite the party.”

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Staff Writer

In my first job after college got paid to read the New York Times and summarize articles for an early online data base. First reporting job was with The Daily Record in Parsippany. I have also worked in nonprofits, and have been with The Press since 1990.

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