As rising political star Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) prepares for an uncontested primary, the four Republicans auditioning to oppose him remain far from the spotlight.
They are not complete unknowns. One was prominent in politics long ago. Two have been occasional candidates -- though not necessarily as Republicans. The fourth is making his first attempt at elective office, with some organization support.
The GOP candidates acknowledge the obstacles cited by political observers. As a group, they are underfunded and undifferentiated -- their lack of money and similar, although not identical, conservative views are making it hard for any of the campaigns to stand out.
Booker’s celebrity, war chest and victory last year scared off “the top-tier established candidates” from the June 3 primary, said Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University. The Republicans left are the second tier of candidates, absent any self-financed millionaire with the money to get out his message, he said.
“No one has caught fire because this is one of those situations that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Dworkin said. “Nobody expects these candidates to ignite, so nobody is paying attention.”
Yet for those who do listen, all four candidates speak in detail, and often passionately, about the issues.
“The Republican Party is the party of optimists,” said Brian D. Goldberg of Livingston, an owner of concrete and construction products businesses who is making his first run for elected office.
“You have to look at this incrementally,” said Richard Pezzullo, an IT consultant from Freehold. “If not for the government shutdown, Steve Lonegan might have beaten Cory Booker in last year’s special election. If I can do better than Lonegan, I could win.”
Pezzullo is part of a rematch in this race, since he was the Conservative Party candidate for governor in 1997, when another member of this year’s Republican field, Murray Sabrin, was the Libertarian nominee.
Sabrin was the first third-party candidate to qualify for matching funds and debated Republican incumbent Christie Whitman and Democrat James McGreevey. Sabrin tried for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate in 2008, finishing third in the primary.
The Ramapo College finance professor said he is running again because this year’s issues are “things I’ve been talking about for 35-40 years.”
That time frame also applies to Jeff Bell, who is unique among the field for having won a primary. In 1978, when he was 34, Bell defeated incumbent Sen. Clifford Case (R-NJ) before losing to former basketball star Bill Bradley in the general election. Bell tried again four years later, but lost in the primary to Rep. Millicent Fenwick (R-NJ), who was then upset by Democratic businessman Frank Lautenberg.
Lautenberg served until his death last year, when Booker won the special election to replace him. Case remains the last Republican to win a U.S. Senate race, while Fenwick was an icon of probity in the Watergate era. Bell acknowledged that Republicans who remember his past exploits might not be his biggest fans.
“The more people are on the party committees, the less they like me,” he said with a chuckle.
After 1982, Bell moved to Virginia and immersed himself in behind-the-scenes policy development in the Reagan Administration. He later served as president of an economic consulting firm, then as a principal of a media strategies firm, both in Washington, D.C., before moving to Palisades Park this year.
With his policy wonk background, Bell is versed in a variety of issues, but unabashedly chooses to focus on one -- returning the United States to a gold standard. The approach puzzles his opponents, but Bell said the decision is practical as well as philosophical.
“If you don’t have much money, voters aren’t going to know much about you other than one thing,” Bell said. “I don’t want it to be that I’m the guy whose 70, or that I’ve been living out of state. I want it to be my clear message about the gold standard.”
For much of the 19th century, the leading trading countries chose to tie the values of their currencies to the supply of gold. That served as a check on the amount of monies in circulation, tied varied national currencies together, and limited long-term inflation.
One downside was that shorter-term events -- a war between two countries, the opening of new gold mines in a third -- sent shocks through the entire international marketplace. Farmers and small businesses often complained of tight credit. To lessen unemployment and other domestic consequences, many countries routinely ignored the gold standard during times of turmoil.
The system collapsed on the eve of World War I, but was reinstated after World War II. Facing chronic trade deficits, President Richard Nixon again took America off the gold standard in 1971.
Bell and some other conservatives see reviving the gold standard as way to end what they portray as the free-wheeling monetary policy practiced by America’s central bank, the Federal Reserve, particularly in response to the Great Recession.
Bell describes the Fed’s policy of loaning money to large financial institutions at zero or very low interest as a major contributor to stagnation, benefitting Wall Street “crony capitalism” while harming small business and young people.
“Republicans are very, very wrong to say that inequality isn’t happening,” said Bell, who otherwise is socially conservative. He opposes gay marriage and believes “religious freedom is under attack in this country.”
On economic issues, there is considerable overlap between him and Sabrin, but they each energetically point to differences in substance as well as style.
To Bell, Sabrin lacks focus. As he says, a political conversation with the professor can easily range over a century or two of economic history. But Sabrin presents himself as a champion of individual freedom. From his Libertarian perspective, Bell does not follow through on ideas.
Yes, the Fed’s “unconscionable printing of money” is a critical problem to Sabrin. “The zero interest rate policy, that is an example of crony capitalism,” he said. But such abuses did not arise in a vacuum, he said, the entire “structure of our banking industry is a very shady model,” taking advantage of individuals and small businesses while cultivating political connections.
Meanwhile, Sabrin said, the national debt also ballooned in the wake of the recession. Instead of using our military for national defense, we have pursued wasteful and unwarranted foreign wars, he said.
“Our civil liberties have been under attack,” not least through unconstitutional spying and surveillance programs, he said.
Some of those policies “have been embraced by too many Republicans,” said Sabrin, 64. “That’s why I’m running, I want to do something about it.”
The Fort Lee resident’s definition of “something” may be the most sweeping of any candidate. Among other things, Sabrin proposes eliminating the corporate income tax, and turning all corporations into limited liability corporations to tax individual members.
On immigration, Sabrin said, “You can’t deport 12 million people,” but his compromise solution might prove controversial in a general election. He would allow undocumented immigrants to apply for resident alien status. But he would never allow them or their children to become citizens.
“That would be penalizing all the people who followed the rules and came here legally,” Sabrin said, but added, “we should have a civil discussion” of the issue.
Sabrin even sticks to conservative principles in critiquing a project that has become an article of faith among orthodox Republicans -- TransCanada’s Keystone XL oil pipeline. The 2,100-mile project would carry fuel from Alberta’s tar sands to refineries in Galveston, TX, for shipment through the Panama Canal to Asian markets. It would be a substitute for a pipeline to Vancouver that encountered environmental, tribal and political opposition in Canada.
“Most conservatives don’t know that private companies have been given the right to use eminent domain for the pipeline,” taking land from Americans, Sabrin said. “That’s crony capitalism at its worst.”