Are We Witnessing the Rise of the Right-Wing Democrat?
Before she was a liberal Senator, Kristen Gillibrand (D-NY) was a fiery, conservative Congresswoman with firmly held positions on guns and immigration that were Trumpian avant la lettre.
As an article in Slate put it, when Gillibrand won her seat in the House of Representatives in 2007,
She supported a balanced budget amendment and a ban on deficit spending. Her immigration platform was of a piece with the proto-Trumpism brewing during George W. Bush’s second term — no amnesty or benefits for illegal aliens; a crackdown on sanctuary cities like New York; more agents, fencing, and tech for the border; and legislation making English America’s official language. The Human Rights Campaign … gave her the lowest rating of any New York Democrat in Congress for her positions on gay rights issues.
Gillibrand once had the NRA’s highest blessing, earning an “A” rating for her pro-Second Amendment views. She even bragged about the two guns she kept under her bed. In 2009, Congresswoman Gillibrand told reporters: “If I want to protect my family, if I want to have a weapon in the home, that should be my right.” Upon winning her seat in the House of Representatives, she became a member of the Blue Dog Coalition of conservative Democrats.
Gillibrand flipped, of course, once she was safely ensconced in the United States Senate and started thinking about a White House run. But while in the House of Representatives she “walked the walk” of a real right-winger. Today, with presidential aspirations, Gillibrand tries to explain away her pro-gun, anti-immigrant past by blaming her constituents “in a largely rural and heavily Republican district in upstate New York.”
More recently, Conor Lamb (D-PA) won a special election in Pennsylvania by “pulling a Gillibrand.” He ran to the right, taking a Trumpian position on guns and declaring he was “personally pro-life” and anti-Pelosi. As countless news outlets have reported,
Lamb emulate[d] the qualities some Democrats feel are necessary to win in Republican-leaning districts this year. Pockets of the Democratic Party believe candidates with national security experience who promote some middle-ground policies can win the independents and GOP voters needed to unseat House Republicans.
New Jersey also has a candidate for Congress in the Gillibrand-Lamb mold. State Senator Jeff Van Drew has modeled himself as a real conservative running as a Democrat to replace retiring Republican Rep. Frank LoBiondo in New Jersey’s 2nd Congressional District (CD). Like Gillibrand and Lamb, Van Drew supports gun rights. And, according to Politico, the Senator “has held onto his seat in a Republican-leaning South Jersey legislative district partly by voting like a member of the GOP.”
In fact, Van Drew is the most conservative Democrat in the New Jersey Legislature. He has co-sponsored legislation to “restore the death penalty for certain murders and to require parents to be told if their non-adult daughters receive an abortion.” He holds a 100 percent rating from the NRA, supports concealed carry of handguns, and has consistently voted against gun control measures pushed by his fellow Democrats in Trenton.
Jeff Van Drew is a conservative who votes conservative and is running in a conservative-leaning Congressional district. He’s irritated progressives and environmentalists with his support for pulling New Jersey out of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, while backing a pipeline project through the environmentally sensitive Pinelands region. On guns, abortions, immigration and the environment, Van Drew is a Trump Republican running in a Democratic primary.
The Cook Political Report says that New Jersey’s 2nd Congressional District is the most likely to flip from Republican to Democratic control. So, it’s no surprise that Van Drew is mostly ignoring the progressive base of his party. It’s a good strategy in a district where candidate Donald Trump won by a comfortable margin. It certainly looks as though the most conservative candidate for New Jersey’s 2nd Congressional District is Democrat Jeff Van Drew. He’s unquestionably more conservative than retiring GOP Congressman Frank LoBiondo.
This may be the most refreshing, unintended consequence of President Trump’s 2016 election: the rise of the right-wing Democrat.
It was just one year ago this April that the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Tony Perez, demanded ideological purity on abortion rights, promising to support only Democratic candidates who back a woman’s right to choose. Perez said this was “not negotiable, and should not change city by city or state by state.”
Whether Democrats are willing to accept conservatives in their ranks remains to be seen. Earlier this month, progressive Democrats in Illinois tried (and failed) to defeat one of the last relatively conservative Democrats in Congress. Rep. Dan Lipinski, an opponent of Obamacare and one of the only pro-life Democrats left in Congress. Nina Turner, president of a spin-off organization of the Bernie Sanders campaign, let it be clear that diverse views within the Democratic Party will not be tolerated: “We’re just beginning here to fight this battle over making sure that we elect people who fully understand that they’ve got to stand up for the people no matter what.”
With the Bernie Sanders wing of the Democratic Party gaining steam, Van Drew might be the last of the true conservative Democrats. That is, if he doesn’t “pull a Gillibrand.”
Jerry Rogers is the founder of Capitol Allies, an independent, nonpartisan effort that promotes free enterprise. He’s the co-host of The LangerCast on the RELM Network. Twitter: @CapitolAllies.