WILDWOOD, N.J. - President Donald Trump is holding his next rally in a county with almost no factory jobs to save, a reliance on immigrant workers and an economy built in part by coastal elites who summer there.
Cape May County on the southern tip of New Jersey reflects just how much loyalty Trump commands with voters outside the industrial heartland. More than 65% of its economy comes from tourism. The population booms from 90,000 year-round to more than 670,000 in July and August. Yet the county is reliably safe swimming for Republicans — and a Trump event bringing in thousands of guests into a community that is shuttered for winter is an economic bonus for the hotels, motels and restaurants.
Trump is holding the Tuesday rally along the beach in Wildwood in support of New Jersey Rep. Jeff Van Drew, who flipped to the Republican party last month after opposing the House Democratic majority’s impeachment of the president.
The event is a chance to reward Van Drew with a presidential seal of approval, but it will also resonate beyond the Jersey Shore, drawing in suburban Philadelphia voters at a moment when Pennsylvania is a must-win for the president in 2020, said Seth Grossman, an attorney who ran against Van Drew in 2018 as a pro-Trump Republican.
“He’s sending a message that it’s OK for Democrats to embrace Trump and Republicans, as opposed to feeling obligated to stay in the Democratic Party,” Grossman said.
New Jersey Rep. Jeff Van Drew and President Donald Trump
The rally is a studied contrast with Trump’s 2018 campaign stops that tended to be further inland in counties that were generally whiter, poorer and less educated than the United States as a whole. That strategy helped Republicans to expand their Senate majority by two seats even as they lost their House majority to Democrats.
Beach lovers have brought a county of barrier islands and pristine wetlands tremendous wealth. They come for the charming Victorian eaves of Cape May, the beach view mansions of Avalon, the boardwalk of alcohol-free Ocean City and the Space Age architecture of Wildwood’s motels. Of the county’s shore towns, Wildwood has more of a working class vibe and the largest gathering space with an indoor arena that seats about 7,000 people.
About 60% of the revenues for the Bolero Resort in Wildwood come in July and August — and there is usually just one of two guests staying there during a typical January weekday. But the 120 rooms are fully booked on Monday and Tuesday for the Trump rally. Thirty of those rooms had been closed for the winter and needed to be re-opened, while the restaurant hired staff to serve cocktails such as the “Subpoena Colada” and the “Moscow Mueller” as the band Shorty Long and the Jersey Horns plays both nights.
“I actually have a waiting list of people we know — friends of friends, regular customers — but we just don’t have enough space,”″ said Perry Nickleach, the Bolero’s manager.
Not everyone has benefited from the wealth being generated on the Jersey Shore.
For the past 19 years, home prices have increased in value by an annual average of 6.5%, while incomes have grown an average of just 2.5%, according to figures from the real estate company CoreLogic and analysis by The Associated Press. Cape May County’s year-round population has fallen by nearly 10,000 residents during that same period as it has become less affordable, according to Census Bureau figures.
While Trump often talks about the stock market, a half-century low unemployment rate and trade talks at his rallies, the most important economic resource in Cape May County might be its grayish khaki sand. The sand forms the beaches and the beaches reel in the money and real estate development. But the Atlantic Ocean is constantly sucking the sand back into the deep, putting all of that wealth at risk.
“Every day around 7:30 a.m. you will see landscaper, builders, electricians, plumbers, etc. all crossing the bridge into Avalon to work on shore homes. Why? Sand on the beach,” said Scott Wahl, the business administrator in the nearby borough of Avalon. “Without it, we have no economy.”
The borough just finished a nearly $8 million project this fall to replenish its beaches with lost sand and 65% of that sum came from federal funding. New Jersey’s state government provides $25 million annually to protect the beaches, but that amount has not been increased since the program was created in 1998.
“Cape May County has no industry and is totally dependent on its oceanfront,” said Margot Walsh, head of the Jersey Shore Partnership that is lobbying the state to increase funding for beach preservation. “The coastline is a fragile asset that requires ongoing maintenance to protect and preserve it from devastating erosion caused by nor’easters and hurricanes.”
But the nature of the tourism sector also means that companies depend heavily on immigrant workers who arrive with a J-1 student visa. The county had 2,545 workers from overseas in 2018, according to State Department figures.
“Areas that have a low year-round population and high seasonal industries find that the J-1 program is very necessary to them,” said Vicki Clark, president of the Cape May County Chamber of Commerce.
Yet those workers are largely gone in the winter, leaving the year-round residents who are perpetually getting ready for May when the crowds return.
Brendan Sciarra, the chairman of the Cape May County Democrats, said his focus is on the mission of getting Democrats elected in a county by nearly 20 points. But Sciarra is also a restaurateur who wants the best for his community and the rally is putting money in people’s pockets at a time that historically has been a period of financial hibernation.
“It puts Wildwood on the map and I fight for Wildwood any way I can,” he said.
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