For conservatives, libertarians, independents and disaffected Democrats, the most intriguing dark horse senatorial candidate in 2014 might just be a 70-year old New Jerseyan you’ve never heard of.
When Jeff Bell last won election – as the Republican nominee for the same U.S. Senate seat he seeks today in New Jersey – Jimmy Carter had not yet delivered his infamous "malaise" speech. Long-term interest rates hovered above 8%. Bell’s current opponent, Senator Cory Booker, was a child.
A self described "policy wonk" and "political junkie," Bell unseated incumbent Republican senator, Clifford Case, in a major upset in that 1978 primary, before losing the general election to former NBA star and future presidential candidate Bill Bradley. No Republican has ever been elected to the U.S. Senate from New Jersey since.
In 1982, the then-39 year old Columbia graduate, who started contributing to National Review in the 1960s, served as an aide to the Nixon campaign in 1968; fought in Vietnam; worked on the 1976 and 1980 Reagan campaigns; and would attempt -- unsuccessfully -- to secure the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate in New Jersey again following the resignation of a Democratic senator convicted for bribery and conspiracy in the Abscam scandal fictionalized in the 2013 film, "American Hustle."
While he would notably later serve as national campaign coordinator for Rep. Jack Kemp in his 2000 presidential bid, the majority of Bell's career was spent focusing on advancing policy over politics. Bell served a short stint as president of the conservative Manhattan Institute think tank, as well as lengthier tenures at an economic and political forecasting firm, Lehrman Bell Mueller Canon, a public affairs firm, Capital City Partners, and in academia as a fellow at Harvard’s Institute of Politics and visiting professor at Rutgers’ Eagleton Institute.
Bell also wrote columns for publications such as the Wall Street Journal and Weekly Standard, and published two books including the 2012 title, "The Case for Polarized Politics: Why America Needs Social Conservatism," and the 1992 title "Populism and Elitism: Politics in the Age of Equality."
Most recently, the Senate candidate co-founded and spent several years as a director of policy at the conservative American Principles Project, where he headed its "Gold Is Money" initiative. In this capacity, Bell sought to persuade national politicians to reinstate the gold standard – not just audit the Fed, which Bell views as a relatively empty and largely symbolic measure.
But as the Republican nominee told us in a recent interview in TheBlaze’s New York offices, which you can listen to in full below, Bell could not compel others in Washington to take up the issue in a meaningful way:
I spent four years in Washington as Policy Director of the American Principles Project trying to get people to deal with the need for monetary reform, specifically a return to the gold-backed dollar that we abandoned 43 years ago. And I couldn’t do it.
The Fed is an 800-pound gorilla. Nobody wanted to take them on. The Fed is financing Congress’s increasing debt loads, which makes [federal spending] much less painful than it would otherwise be. They’re financing…a Wall Street boom.
…I couldn’t find people who wanted to take the issue [of reinstating the gold standard] on. I even tried to recruit other candidates for the Senate…but I failed…So rather suddenly, in late January, I realized this issue wasn’t going to get into the mix unless I returned to New Jersey and ran myself.
And run Bell did, winning in a four-way Republican primary this past June, some thirty-six years after last winning an election.
Now the conservative Bell finds himself in the midst of a most unconventional campaign (from the lobby of a New Jersey hotel), on a shoestring budget (his campaign reported $0 in the bank at last disclosure), primarily by championing a single issue (the gold standard).
On this latter point, Bell told us that given the nature of the campaign and financial limitations, rather than run on a broad array of issues he decided to run on "the thing that I think is most important for the economy, which is the mismanagement of monetary policy by the Federal Reserve, and the fact that they are almost singlehandedly holding back this economic recovery.
"Their crushing low-interest rate policy makes it impossible or very difficult for even a successful small business to get lines of credit that they need to expand…and of course savers cannot save by…traditional means such as a savings account and CDs," he added.
TheBlaze asked Bell if sound money was a compelling issue to New Jersey voters, especially in light of the fact that some Garden State natives work on Wall Street, and thus ostensibly benefit from the Federal Reserve’s policies. While Bell acknowledges that this segment of the electorate is not particularly receptive to his views on monetary policy, he is not overly concerned with New Jersey's Wall Street denizens, focusing his efforts instead on grassroots voters:
Although nobody was talking about the gold standard when I came into the state, if you offer it as the explanation and the answer for what is going on with the Fed – and their printing of money and their crushing the economy – then people are very interested…and the fact that they haven't heard it before is not a negative because voters at the grassroots are much more open to ideas that are outside the box than elites are.
[sharequote align="center"]“[T]he grassroots are much more open to ideas that are outside the box than elites are.”[/sharequote]
A quick glance at Bell's website, not to mention his aforementioned book, "The Case for Polarized Politics: Why America Needs Social Conservatism," indicates the nominee's conservatism goes beyond monetary matters. When we asked him if such views were acceptable in a liberal state like New Jersey, Bell said that while the state is no Texas, he's "gotten no pushback on…[his] unapologetic support for life and the traditional definition of marriage."
Skeptics would question Bell’s viability as a candidate on the basis of his ideology alone. Running in a deep blue state like New Jersey -- where Barack Obama beat Mitt Romney 58% to 41% in 2012 -- is daunting for any Republican. But Bell notes that a national anti-incumbent theme, as reflected by Dave Brat's upset of former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor on the right, and Marine Corps veteran Seth Moulton's victory over 9-term incumbent Massachusetts Democrat John Tierney on the left, may help him overcome the state's liberalism.
Indeed an anti-incumbency atmosphere, combined with President Obama’s sinking popularity in the state, and what Bell perceives as New Jersey's yearning for an outsider, is what leads him to believe that he has a legitimate chance to upset Democratic darling Cory Booker [link ours]:
I’m not at all concerned with the perception that New Jersey is a blue state…New Jersey has had a sea change in its attitude towards President Obama in the last few months. He won the state with 15 percent of the vote…in 2012. And yet a poll that just came out…lists him as having a positive rating in the mid-30s [percent]…after he got 58% two years ago. I think what’s happened across the state is that voters have decided about this presidency, it is not working, and it is not going to work…the world is falling apart and the administration seems to be a spectator. And they’re not going to do anything different on the economy…I think the last thing a lot of voters in New Jersey want to be doing is…casting a vote that would be interpreted as a vote for the "status quo." That's hurting Cory Booker.
In addition to the fact that New Jersey last elected a Republican senator in 1972, Bell's odds are further weakened due to Cory Booker's name recognition and comparably massive war chest. But Bell sees optimism in the fact that he is polling closer to Booker, further out from the general election than conservative candidate Steve Lonegan was in the run-up to the 2013 special election for the seat vacated by deceased Senator Frank Lautenberg, which Booker is now defending.
[sharequote align="right"]"[T]he world is falling apart and the administration seems to be a spectator"[/sharequote]
Bell adds that Lonegan, who lost by approximately 11% to Booker, was gaining ground on the former Newark mayor before the U.S. government shutdown, which coincided with the final two weeks of the election, at which point Lonegan’s rise halted.
As for how New Jersey voters see it, the closest poll conducted thus far, released in early August, had Bell running 10 points behind the incumbent senator, a lead that the New Jersey Star Ledger described as "relatively modest," and which the assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Poll called “a bit of a puzzlement.”
More recent polls have shown a slightly larger anticipated margin of victory by Booker. Perhaps two of the more telling data points beyond their head-to-head numbers are that according to one poll, 46% of independent voters say they are unsure who they will support in the race, and according to another, 37% of all voters do not know who Jeff Bell is.
Exposure, then, remains a big issue for Bell. While Politico notes that prominent Republicans such as Steve Forbes, Bill Kristol and Larry Kudlow have worked for Bell, local reports indicate that the candidate has received tepid support from establishment New Jersey Republicans like Gov. Christie, or national groups like the Club for Growth or Senate Conservatives Fund.
Bell shrugged this notion off at least at the state level, noting that the New Jersey Republican Party has unified, evidenced for example by an upcoming fundraiser headlined by Christie. The New Jersey governor, for his part, has "grown weary" of the implication he is not supporting the state's Republican party.
While acknowledging the many difficulties facing his campaign, Bell remains optimistic, noting that pundits were not giving the candidate a shot several months ago, while all across the state Bell is hearing today that this is a winnable election.
Further, Bell reiterates that
voters are looking for somebody who is anti-establishment, outside the box…the mood is anti-incumbent and anti-establishment, and Senator Booker would not have run up and down the state in his three stops of his campaign kickoff attacking me at every stop, unless his internal polls were consistent with the public polls that show this is a viable race for me.
If his analysis is right, Bell's narrative as an anti-establishment, populist conservative would appear to set up nicely against Booker. The incumbent -- who played football at Stanford, earned a Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford and received a law degree from Yale before jumping into Newark politics -- has notably spent his abbreviated U.S. Senate term attempting to take selfies with all 99 other senators, while amassing a political fortune by courting Silicon Valley and Wall Street. Booker also personally profited from his relationship with the tech community, drawing ire from progressives for a seeming lack of purity based upon such alliances.
Should the voters dig into Booker, he also has a far larger public record than Bell, with significant questions about the veracity of the stories he has used to craft his image among voters, and perhaps more importantly the major problems that continue to face the city he led, Newark. One such scandal that occurred during Booker's tenure as mayor, under his oversight, involved the agency responsible for providing all of Newark's water allegedly "fleec[ing] millions from the public fisc while his [Booker's] political allies enriched themselves."
Booker's campaign for its part has attacked Bell as a Washington D.C. insider for his years spent in policy advocacy, and cast him as a carpetbagger since Bell moved back to New Jersey in February 2014, having spent the last several decades in the Beltway area.
Whether or not the confluence of factors outlined herein will make the New Jersey U.S. senatorial race a competitive one in 2014 remains to be seen.
But while characterizations of Bell by ideological allies as "the most interesting candidate in the world" may be going a bit far, Bell is undoubtedly a subversive candidate to the degree to which a genuinely radical monetary stance combined with traditional conservative values in a plain-spoken and humble package represents a break from the status quo.
A vote for Bell may be perceived as a protest vote, as he acknowledged in our interview, irrespective of the results on election day. But if Bell can remain competitive with Booker to the end, he has a chance to make the reinstatement of sound money a relevant issue with the megaphone that is the nation's biggest media market. In that respect, for those who believe in the efficacy of a strong dollar, limited Federal Reserve, less spending and reduced federal debt, Bell is as good as gold.