On primary night in early June, few observers would have given New Jersey Republican nominee Jeff Bell much of a chance against incumbent Senator Cory Booker (D) in this year???s U.S. Senate election. Bell was the surprise winner of a close contest between four relative unknowns, taking 29% of the vote. At 71, Bell is 25 years his opponent???s senior, and has not been involved in elective politics since 1978. But Bell is no stranger to upset victories or to beating more well-known opponents. He defeated incumbent senator Clifford Case in the Republican primary to earn the party???s nomination 36-years ago. Now he is setting his sights on Booker, who like Case should enjoy every advantage, but continues to underperform.
Two recent polls of likely voters show Bell within striking distance of Booker, trailing by 7 and 10 points respectively. Booker???s support barely reaches 50% – a danger sign for an incumbent – and his approval rating hovers at 47%. The polls, together with Booker???s performance in his special Senate election victory last October, point to the possibility that Booker is vulnerable in November. Major media outlets have noticed as well. Recent editorials in the New York Post and Philadelphia Inquirerwere favorable to Bell in the wake of the polls.
When he announced his intention to seek a Senate seat, Booker was considered a shoo-in. However, his campaign to fill the remainder of the late senator Frank Lautenberg???s (D) term turned out to be no coronation. Polls in early August had Booker with a 35-point lead, but he struggled to an 11-point win over Steve Lonegan, a noted conservative gadfly. Lonegan ran a pugnacious campaign, attacking Booker on his tenure as mayor of Newark while Booker put forth a lackluster effort noted more for the time he spent out of state fundraising than the time he spent in state campaigning.
In his first Senate race, Bell was one of the first Republicans to run on tax cuts as a means to create economic growth. Now, Bell is basing his campaign now on another issue few are talking about, severing what he calls the, ???dysfunctional codependency between Congress and the Federal Reserve, and between Wall Street and the Fed,??? which he blames for high deficits and inflation, and low job creation. It???s a message aimed squarely at the middle class, which could help him gain traction in middle class New Jersey.
Issues are Bell???s strong point. He is an experienced political operative with stints as an aide to former presidents Reagan and Nixon and representative Jack Kemp, a professor at the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University, a president of the conservative Manhattan Institute, and a board member of the American Conservative Union. Bell is cerebral – a thinker – and an author of two books on American politics. In a contest of ideas against the flashy young Booker, Bell should be more than capable of holding his own.
What Bell doesn???t have that Booker has in abundance is money. His campaign reports having more than $3 million cash on hand, which gives him approximately $3 million more than Bell at this stage of the race. A darling of the liberal media and Hollywood elites – not to mention his 1.5 million followers on Twitter and 275,000 likes on Facebook – Booker???s media profile is about as big as a politician???s can get.
Bell???s campaign reports having no money to buy exposure, which explains recent polling results showing 3 in 4 New Jersey voters don???t know enough about him to form an opinion. Bell must therefore run a guerrilla campaign, hounding Booker and any other Democrat he can reach at every opportunity, hoping to force Booker into a debate. Last week, Bell joined 200 protesters at a fundraiser for a Democratic congressional candidate that was attended by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV). Booker was nowhere to be seen. The protestors were rallying against South Jersey Democratic power broker George Norcross. Lending got Bell much needed mentions in the local press, however, and should demonstrate to Booker???s campaign that Bell will not be ignored.
Getting Booker on the stage will be critical to Bell???s effort, not only because it will grant him free exposure to the voters, but because it will put Bell in his most favorable environment – challenging Booker in the area of ideas. It is still very early in the race, and Booker remains a strong favorite to win in November. Booker has not had to spend any time or money on the campaign trail, but he has yet to show that his base of support is more than just image driven. More poll results showing him around or under 50% will force Booker to come after Bell, which will be Bell???s biggest opportunity to make an impression.