Don't count out underdog Bell against Booker
Back when a teenager named Chris Christie was manning the catcher's spot for Livingston High School, an unknown political operative named Jeffrey Bell knocked off the liberal Clifford P. Case, a six-term U.S. senator, in the 1978 New Jersey Republican primary. Even as the GOP gained 15 seats in the House and three seats in the Senate in that fall's midterm elections, Bell fell short against Democrat Bill Bradley. But now his sights are focused on another sitting senator, Cory A. Booker.
While the 70-year-old conservative faces tough odds in a deep-blue state, a late July survey of likely voters by CBS and the New York Times spots the Republican challenger down only 7 percentage points.
This single-digit deficit represents a stunning one-month improvement from a Rasmussen poll, also of likely voters, marking the spread at 13 points, and a Monmouth University/Asbury Park Press tally of registered voters giving Booker a 20-point lead. However, averaged together, the spreads are statistically indistinguishable from Booker's 11-point victory last year, Sen. Robert Menendez's 10-point victory over Tom Kean Jr. in 2006, and Bell's 12-point loss in 1978.
But Bell sees two other encouraging signs: The July poll indicates that he leads among independent voters, 48 percent to 40 percent, and the Monmouth results show that fully one-third of the electorate believes it's time for change. Nonetheless, if turnout approximates that of the last two midterms, the Republican nominee will need $2.4 million to tap the 1.1 million votes needed to win - based upon the $2.19 per vote that his campaign spent to gain 41,000 votes in the primary.
That's money Bell doesn't have. His campaign starts with only $10,000 to go after Booker, a darling of Wall Street, Silicon Valley, and Hollywood, who has nearly $3 million in the bank. Nor does Bell's shoestring operation entertain illusions of raising that kind of cash or even gaining the support of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. The problem, says Bell: The party's donor class is captive to Wall Street, which doesn't trust him to toe the corporate line.
That's an understatement.
Bell's entire political raison d'être is to upend, in his words, the "dysfunctional codependency between Congress and the Federal Reserve, and between Wall Street and the Fed." In Bell's mind, the Fed's quantitative-easing program and zero-percent interest rate serve only investment bankers, whose "casino mentality" brought on the 2008 meltdown, and the politicians of both parties, who have run up unprecedented peacetime deficits. The results, laments Bell, include a weakened U.S. dollar, downward pressure on job creation and wages, and upticks in inflation - making it difficult "for working people to support a family and young people to establish a career."
Because Booker, following President Obama, salutes the "paper-money regime," Bell sees an opportunity to connect with voters by hammering the "upstairs-downstairs" strategy of the Democrats - their pandering to the rich with liquidity-flooded markets and to the poor through record social-welfare and Medicaid outlays. The result, Bell says, is that Democrats offer nothing to a neglected and anxious middle class.
Bell places too much stock in the gold standard to set things right, and he needs to focus more on delivering economic tangibles than expounding monetary theories. But at least the U.S. Army veteran, who fought for his country as an intelligence officer in Vietnam, is willing to confront the economic and cultural elites who have nearly dismantled the American way of life. Indeed, the Catholic father of four grown children has spent a lifetime advocating for ordinary Americans rarely championed by the chattering classes - and hated by the political left.
As Pat Buchanan notes in his just-released memoir, The Greatest Comeback: How Richard Nixon Rose from Defeat to Create the New Majority, Bell played no small role in crafting Nixon's 1968 playbook. Then just 24, Bell outlined how to fight for the "gut vote" - the "great silent majority" that included northern Catholics and southern Protestants - and ignore the howling of the liberal media that denounced patriotic appeals to God and country as racist and fascist.
But translating this devotion to Middle America into a game plan that closes the nominee's polling gap among today's New Jersey voters remains a tall order. Engaging big-name consultants and blanketing the pricey Philadelphia and New York media markets with television ads seem out of the question. Bell is hoping that Booker agrees to a debate, where decades of honing policy expertise at high-level think tanks would allow him to shine.
Bell also expects to benefit from a unified state GOP: He quickly picked up the endorsements of former opponents Rich Pezzullo, Brian Goldberg, and Murray Sabrin after a collegial primary. Plus, he has the support of former Gov. Tom Kean; Steve Lonegan, who fought Booker with similarly limited resources last year; and of course, the Garden State's reigning political heavyweight, Gov. Christie, who can bring enormous resources and attention to bear.
While Booker remains the favorite, the state's junior senator should not underestimate his challenger. Upsets can and do happen. Just ask former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. And as Jeff Bell has already proven, an underdog can pull off a surprise in what should be a good Republican year.
Robert W. Patterson is a Cherry Hill native who served in the administrations of President George W. Bush and Gov. Corbett.