On March 29, 2014, Princeton College Republicans hosted the annual convention for the New Jersey College Republican Federation, an organization of about a dozen CR chapters in universities across the state. Numerous elected officials arrived at Princeton’s campus for the occasion, including Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno, Congressman Leonard Lance, and Assemblywoman Donna Simon. In addition, many campaigns used the event as an opportunity to recruit volunteers and jockey for support among younger voters ahead of their respective primary contests. Students were split between three Republican contenders in the race for U.S. Senate against Cory Booker: Richard Pezzullo, Brian Goldberg, and Murray Sabrin. Each of those candidates seemed to place a great deal of importance on winning over the convention’s student audience, either speaking to the crowd in person or sending a campaign surrogate to deliver his message, and virtually no one seemed to think that there were any other challengers running in the race.
But almost two months later on primary day (June 3, 2014), none of these perceived front-runners captured the Republican nomination. In a stunning upset, Jeff Bell won a plurality of the vote against the other three candidates (29.4 percent), besting his closest competitor by only 3.2 percent in a tight contest. Although the fight for the GOP nomination did not receive much attention, political insiders following the race were mostly shocked by the outcome. Chris Gabbett, former co-chairman of the New Jersey College Republican Federation, posted to Facebook that “this primary makes no sense” and asked his friends “how the hell did Bell win?” Syndicated columnist Phil Kerpen tweeted “I’m calling ?#NJSen for Jeff Bell. What an amazing comeback story!” Finally, the Save Jersey blog, a popular source for conservative news in the state, called the race “the upset of the night.”
So who was this dark horse winner? Since serving his country in the Vietnam War, Jeff Bell largely immersed himself in government and academia. He served as an aide to Presidents Nixon and Reagan as well as to Representative Jack Kemp, under whom he gained a reputation as a fervent supply-sider. Bell is also a former President of the Manhattan Institute, a fellow at the Harvard Institute of Politics, and a visiting professor at Rutgers University’s Eagleton Institute of Politics. This is not the first time that Jeff Bell has pulled off a stunning primary upset. In 1978, he defeated a four-term liberal Republican incumbent Senator, Clifford Case, in a primary by advocating for significant income tax reduction. Although Bell lost the subsequent general election by a 12 percent margin, his later work with the Reagan administration helped to facilitate the tax relief that he had championed as a candidate.
In this campaign, Bell has stressed monetary reform rather than tax relief. His campaign manager, Rich Danker, said in an interview with The Tory that Bell’s economic policy amounted to a “total change in monetary policy” and that the candidate would not be afraid to “take on the Federal Reserve.” On his website, Bell claims that “the most important hindrance to middle-class prosperity is the condition of the U.S. dollar” and believes “the gold standard, which stabilized the dollar under various iterations through most of U.S. history, is the proven way to encourage stable long-term prices and preserve limited government.”
Bell’s support for returning to the gold standard and virulent criticism of the Federal Reserve’s Quantitative Easing program no doubt set him apart from other Republican contenders in his primary race. The fact that voters rewarded him for that distinction brings the issue of monetary reform further into the political discourse, which was likely Bell’s original motivation for launching this campaign anyway. Indeed, his website often reads like an academic paper rather than a set of policy proposals, utilizing detailed language and graphs to make his points. In addition, Bell does not shy away from staking out a position on any issue. On his website, he clarifies his views on everything from statehood for Puerto Rico to internet gambling to drug legalization, hardly the strategy of a candidate worried primarily about electability.
Just as he was an underdog in both his prior nomination contests, Jeff Bell now faces a steep, uphill climb towards defeating incumbent Senator Cory Booker in November. However, Bell so far appears to be engineering a general election comeback even more impressive than his victory in the primary. Polls conducted in June repeatedly showed Bell trailing Booker by between 13 percent and 20 percent. But, since late July, Booker’s lead has shrunk significantly, and a recent CBS/NYT poll shows him leading his Republican opponent by only 7 percent.
Campaign manager Rich Danker cites two reasons for Booker’s increasing vulnerability. First, Danker claims that “people in New Jersey are disappointed in President Obama’s second term and are taking that out on Democrats like Cory Booker who have supported the President’s agenda.” Second, he believes “New Jersey voters are in an anti-incumbent mood and do not like Congress, and Jeff Bell offers them a ‘fresh start.’”
Building on the latter contention, Danker said that the Bell campaign plans to emphasize his status as a Washington outsider. This characterization is made much more effective by Bell’s quirky campaign style. Ironically, Bell’s indifference towards electability seems to actually be making him more electable by differentiating him from the “typical politicians” with whom voters have grown tired. By outlining clear positions on a variety of issues and introducing new topics into the political dialogue, Bell has managed to increase his name ID and stay relevant in a race that was once widely thought to be a cakewalk for Booker. Indeed, Jeff Bell is even getting noticed outside of the Garden State. Matthew Continetti of The Washington Free Beacon referred to Bell as “the most interesting candidate in the world” in a recent column, not because of his beer choices but rather due to his “career arguing with a risk-averse Republican establishment.”
Responding to questions about the increasingly tight race, Cory Booker’s campaign manager, Brendan Gill, issued the following statement to The Tory: “While Sen. Booker has been focused on protecting Social Security and Medicare, ensuring Sandy relief money reaches affected homeowners, and fighting for a living wage for our families, Jeff Bell has aligned himself with Tea Party extremists who have repeatedly tried to privatize Social Security, voted against hurricane relief, and stand in the way of an increase in the minimum wage.” Although the campaign declined to comment on what their strategy would be in the upcoming weeks, the above statement indicates that the Booker campaign will likely attempt to tie Jeff Bell to national conservative leaders and tea party figures while at the same time distancing themselves from President Obama. This will no doubt be a tricky proposition, considering that Jeff Bell has never before served in elected office; meanwhile Cory Booker has been a Senator for one year and can be held accountable for his voting record.
Gill also insisted “the more voters learn about Jeff Bell, they more they will see he’s out of step with New Jersey values.” Therefore, the Booker campaign seems to believe that the closer poll numbers between the two candidates only comes from voters being misinformed about Bell’s true convictions. This assessment, however, severely underestimates both Jeff Bell and the resonance of his message. Indeed, Bell has adopted a form of conservative populism by taking on Washington and Wall Street, big government and big business, which distinguishes him from most other Republicans. In addition, Bell seems to be talking about issues that no one else (Tea Party included) has previously brought to light. Recycling old Democratic talking points about one’s opponent being a “typical Tea Party extremist” likely will not work against Jeff Bell, because he is anything but typical.
Despite his bold stance on monetary policy, Jeff Bell is also not much of an extremist. His website features many specific proposals that incorporate ideas from both Democrats and Republicans. Under the heading “Real Universal Healthcare,” Bell proposes “for those who have serious preexisting conditions and still can’t find affordable private insurance, the federal government should offer its own insurance plan exclusively for those in need.” Although Jeff Bell obviously supports the repeal of Obamacare, by supporting a limited public option, he demonstrates a level of moderation that the Tea Party is often scolded for not embracing, thereby separating himself from that stereotype.
Since winning the Republican nomination for Senate, Bell has begun making a significant play for younger voters. Arguably, because Bell’s campaign is largely ideological, winning over student voters is crucial in order to ensure that a future generation of leaders helps to address the fiscal concerns that he has raised (which cannot be solved overnight). Danker insisted that Bell understands how much “young people matter” and is running for Senate with their futures in mind. Indeed, one of the candidate’s favorite lines to use at political rallies is “All college degrees amount to today is wallpaper at parents’ homes!” Although Jeff Bell did not get to meet Princeton students during the course of the 2014 New Jersey College Republican convention, he will be coming to the area on September 18 for a low-dollar fundraiser. Make sure to be there—this time, his candidacy will not be flying under the radar.