LAWRENCEVILLE – Despite a relative paucity of funding for his campaign coffers and recent polling that shows the lead between himself and his opponent widening, Republican U.S. Senate candidate Jeff Bell is still holding out hope for victory in his challenge against Democratic incumbent U.S. Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ).
During a guest appearance at Rider University last night, where the conservative candidate appeared for an event hosted by the Rebovich Institute for Politics to talk about his much-harangued — or little, depending on how you look at it — senate race against Democratic superstar Cory Booker, Bell said he still believes the contest to be competitive — though he’ll have to “become better known” to stand a real chance at winning in November.
“Just last month people were talking about how undecided many voters were. There’s one poll that showed [my opponent] had 42 to my 29 percent, with the rest undecided,” Bell said, referring to a Farleigh Dickenson University PublicMind poll released early in September showing Booker holding a 13 point lead over the Republican. “Now all the sudden you’re telling me everyone is decided? I don’t think so. I think this is a late breaking race.”
Bell’s comments come with less than a month to go in his contest with Booker, a first term senator and former Newark mayor with wide, celebrity-like appeal in the Garden State. Most political observers of that race believe Bell faces a significant challenge in overcoming his opponent, partly because of the Democrat’s funding prowess and comfortable incumbency status in a blue-leaning state, but also because of the difference in recognition: Booker has enjoyed considerable notoriety over the last few years while Bell, having spent the last 30 years of his political career in Washington, has been dogged by questions about whether voters could even recognize his name on a ballot.
Recent polls have varied on that last factor, though most show Booker holding a comfortable lead over the challenger, both in support and recognition. A poll earlier this summer found 77 percent of New Jersey voters didn’t know enough about Bell to form an opinion, compared with a more recent poll that show that number to be much smaller — though still significant. Bell, for his part, told the room last night that he puts little faith in accuracy of those numbers, or at least expressed skepticism over them, and argued that there’s time yet to close the gap.
“This thing with name recognition, it’s jumped all over the place in the way that my actual standing in the polls haven’t,” Bell said. “And if I’m well enough known and if I still have the same approval rating that the polls have shown … and I can up those figures, then I think this will be a competitive race.”
It’s not the only hurdle the conservative faces in his attempt to oust Booker, who won the seat last year in a special election against former Bogota mayor Steve Lonegan, and last night’s event saw him touching on a number of issues that have come to the fore in the race. In an hour and a half long lecture and question and answer, Bell reminisced about drinking champagne over the passing of the Tax Reform Act of 1986 with his former U.S. Senate opponent Bill Bradley, who he challenged during his first statewide run nearly 10 years before, and later reiterated his position on what has become the main pillar of his campaign — bringing back the gold standard and taking down the Federal Reserve, a “public evil” he credits as the main reason he got into this race.
“I’m often asked this question with a straight face, which is did I think that voters were clamoring for the gold standard, that that’s what they were demanding?,” Bell said. “Of course not. The whole reason that I’m running on that issue is that nobody was talking about it. It wasn’t being offered as a solution even though I believe it has become the most logical solution.”
Bell called the Fed — which he has argued stifles economic growth and devalues the dollar by forcing interest rates to near zero levels — the “800 pound gorilla in the room” that neither Republicans or Democrats in Washington will talk about.
“Here is the paradox — this is one of the few times when it is less risky to return … to a gold back dollar than it is to take the incremental steps. And it’s what has got Washington grid locked,” he said, calling the Federal Reserve’s policies the “single most harmful thing going on in the economy.”
He also blasted President Barack Obama — and by extension his opponent — for his failed economic policies and refusal to reach across the aisle on issues like immigration reform, the current state of which he called a “national embarrassment.”
“That doesn’t give very many incentive for people to come to the table, and that is a big reason why, although Senator Booker has introduced a few micro bills with conservative senators and that’s one of his big talking points now that he no longer mentions the name Barack Obama — they don’t amount to much and there isn’t much prospect,” Bell said. adding later that Booker has “been yoked in people’s minds as President Obama.”
But the most notable discussion of the night was on the topic of immigration, an issue Bell has received some attention for in recent weeks. He originally publicized his opinion on the subject in an email he sent out to supporters late last month, where accused Republicans of being “unwelcoming to Hispanic voters” because of their staunch positions against offering illegal and legal immigrants reasonable pathways to citizenship. He advocated for more more effective legal ways for those immigrants to gain citizenship status and “guest worker” programs for those in the country illegally.
Last night, Bell said he noticed the minority vote has grown in New Jersey since he first campaigned here two decades ago, and argued that Republicans need to begin to tailor their platforms to attract that vote if they want to remain competitive in future statewide elections. That they refuse to do so he called the “single biggest barrier and the reason this state has gone Democratic after being a Republican-leaning in the eighties.”
“I talked about Mitt Romney and his failure to offer an economic alternative, but how about saying that the answer to illegal immigration is self-deportation?,” Bell asked about comments the former (and possibly future) presidential contender made during his 2012 run. “That’s in effect saying for you people who are here illegally, we’re going to make this country that you fought to get to so unappealing that you will want to go back to your armpit of a country that you came from. What kind of a message is that? To say we’re going to make their life so miserable that they’re going to return to countries that they were fleeing?”
He pointed to Gov. Chris Christie — who captured 52 percent of the latino vote and a “respectable black vote” in his last election — as an example of how Republicans can appeal to minorities while still being “unapologetic in your conservative views.”
“I think the big thing is we have to compete for the minorities,” Bell said when asked what Republicans need to do to remain viable. “I don’t think that retreating on gay marriage or abortion has any potential to increase our Hispanic or Asian vote — those are two communities that are very pro family. I think the reason that they are not willing to consider our views on social or economic issues is that yelling ‘amnesty, amnesty, amnesty’ is a big threshold problem for Republican candidates.”
While the issues he tackles may be outside the mainstream of the party, Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for Politics, pointed to Bell’s ability to turn a scrutinizing eye to complex problems like immigration and monetary policy reform as one reason for his appeal as a candidate.
“The thing about Jeff Bell, is that he’s been ahead of the curve his entire life,” Dworkin told PolitickerNJ. “In 1978 people weren’t talking about supply-side economics — he was talking about it and then people started talking about it. And so it was interesting to hear. Who knows whether the gold standard is what we’ll be talking about in 2 years, or broadly monetary policy and the Fed? Who knows whether the way he’s talking about immigration will come to dominate the conversation in a couple years?”