WASHINGTON – New Jersey Republicans don’t know Jeff Bell – but they like him.
Or maybe they just don’t like Democrat Cory Booker.
Bell won the GOP nomination for U.S. Senate in a quiet primary back in June, and is still little known even among partisans – 68 percent of Republicans (and 77 percent of all voters) don’t know enough about him to form an opinion, according to a Quinnipiac University poll out today. But Republicans still support him by 84-9, the poll found.
Overall, Booker leads 47-37, a solid edge, but still less than might be expected considering his profile compared to that of Bell, who last ran for office in 1978 and lived in Virginia for 30 years before renting a home in the Garden State earlier this year so he could run.
The numbers don’t seem to reflect like any great love for Bell. Instead, it looks more like a case of Republicans being eager to beat Booker.
Maybe that’s not so surprising in these polarized times – Booker, after all, is a Democrat, and the GOP is pushing hard to take over the Senate this fall (even if New Jersey isn’t a targeted state).
But it is somewhat ironic, given how much work Booker has done to be seen as a bipartisan deal-maker since joining the Senate last October. The former Newark mayor introduced his first bill alongside South Carolina Republican Tim Scott (the only other African-American in the Senate), he had a high-profile dinner out with Sen. Ted Cruz (R., Tex.) and has recently been joined at the hip with Sen. Rand Paul (R., Ky.) as they promote a bipartisan criminal sentencing reform bill.
Overall, 47 percent of voters approve of the work Booker has done, compared to 27 percent who disapprove. In a race against Bell, Booker wins support from 85 percent of Democrats and wins among independents 42-34, the poll found.
Of course, it’s all very early. Booker has not started campaigning in earnest and has a huge money advantage: he had $3.5 million on hand as of June 30, the latest reporting date. Bell's campaign was $46,000 in debt.
And in a blue state where Democrats have a huge voter registration advantage, Booker won’t need while Republicans to win – just a solid performance among Democrats and independents.
New Jersey hasn’t elected a Republican to the Senate since Clifford Case in 1972. Case, though, lost to Bell in the GOP primary six years later. Bell lost that year’s general election to Bill Bradley, and Democrats have won every New Jersey Senate race since.
The poll also carried ominous news for President Obama: even voters in blue New Jersey gave him just a 44 - 52 percent job approval rating, nearly matching his all-time low in the New Jersey Q Poll: 43 - 52 in October, 2011.
The poll surveyed 1,148 New Jersey voters on cell phones and land lines from July 31 to Aug. 4. Its margin of error is 2.9 percentage points.