Does an earnest, liberal, Quaker scientist have a hope of beating a charismatic, telegenic self-publicist in the Democratic nomination for the late Frank Lautenberg’s U.S. Senate seat?
Rush Holt says he can beat Newark Mayor Cory Booker in the August 13 primary on the basis of his 14-year record as U.S. Representative for New Jersey’s 12th Congressional District; his insistence that evidence rather than ideology should guide policy; and his strong support for a wide range of left-wing causes.
Never mind Booker’s giant lead of more than 40 percentage points in most recent polls less than a month before the Democratic contest, or the fact that the young mayor’s cash on hand — some $4.5 million at the end of June — was more than four times the size of Holt’s, according to Federal Election Commission data.
What matters in the primary, Holt says, is not the number of people who say they will vote for a candidate, but the number who actually turn out on the day, and the depth of their commitment to the candidate.
He argues that the passion of his supporters, coupled with what he says is the vagueness of Booker’s policies on some issues, will allow him to erase an acknowledged deficit in statewide name recognition — a contest that Booker wins hands down.
“I do think the election will depend more on substance than rhetoric, more on fact than ideology, more on experience than flash,” Holt said in an interview with NJ Spotlight at his West Windsor campaign headquarters.
The Senate race is the latest test for Holt, a former physics professor and government nuclear inspector who wants a national carbon tax and single-payer healthcare — and who once beat an IBM computer in a round of Jeopardy.
Holt, who represents a swathe of central Jersey that includes Princeton — and once helped to run an energy-research lab at the university — uses his scientific credentials to create a personal brand that’s designed to distinguish him from other Congressmen, particularly his Republican opponents in the House, who he says are driven by ideology rather than science.
His attempt to establish himself as a rare voice of reason in a fractious political world includes a series of campaign videos in which he appears as a college professor in a laboratory lecturing on issues such as climate change and social security.
And in an apparent attempt to prove that science is cool, he participated on July 30 in “Geek Out Live With Rush,” a campaign event that took the form of an online town hall discussion in which he joined with other scientists to discuss major political and scientific issues of the day.
Holt is in the top 10 percent of the most liberal members of Congress, according to a National Journal ranking based on members’ votes on economic, social, and foreign policy, but he denies he is an ideologue.
Instead, he says he is a conciliator, and a seeker of consensus across party lines, in the same way that members of his Quaker faith reach agreement.
“Am I an opinionated ideologue?” he asked. “No, I have learned through observing good Quakers that one can hold high ideals and still achieve consensus with other people. One can compromise when necessary in order to advance one’s ideals.”
Quakers, he said, set an example for him by trying to “walk the talk”, whether through their historic work to abolish slavery, or in their traditional opposition to war.
“It’s a religious tradition that gives me much to aspire to,” said Holt, the only Quaker in Congress. “So it means I often feel that I fall short.”
Conciliation coupled with evidence can yield good legislative results, even in the notoriously gridlocked House of Representatives, Holt said. He cited a bipartisan bill to provide new funding for soldiers’ mental health and suicide prevention, and $22 billion of new money for scientific research that came as part of the 2009 federal stimulus bill.
“It’s always easier to get cooperation and find common ground if you are dealing with the facts, if you have evidence-based discussions rather than ideological discussions,” he said.
Among Holt’s most frequently cited evidence is that for climate change, a topic that’s at or near the top of his political agenda despite skepticism from climate-deniers in Congress and elsewhere.
He defended his recent comment that “millions will die” as a result of warming global temperatures, rising seas, and bigger storms unless governments take action to curb carbon emissions.
The statement, which drew headlines from news organizations and ridicule from the leading Republican Senate candidate, Steve Lonegan, was based on reports from groups including the World Health Organization which has estimated that 150,000 people a year around the world are already dying from climate-related phenomena such as storms, crop failures, and disease.
Holt also cites another global study by the Climate Vulnerability Monitor which said in 2012 that climate change is already killing some 400,000 people a year, and that the number will rise to 700,000 by 2030.
He conceded that such doom-laden statements don’t normally serve candidates well but argued that voters will support someone who is taking the issue seriously, and will take an evidence-based approach to dealing with the problem.
“New Jerseyans should not need any reminder that climate change is real and that it’s costly and deadly,” he said less than a year after Hurricane Sandy wrecked large areas of the Shore.
Pressed on whether climate change can be blamed for the monster storm, Holt avoided making a direct causal link but said it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that it was driven by warming global temperatures.
“Exactly how did carbon dioxide in the atmosphere give rise to Sandy? That’s hard to say but it’s getting easy to say that increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and greenhouse gases are changing our climate in ways that are costly and deadly,” he said.
He acknowledged that limiting carbon dioxide emissions is economically and politically difficult but argued that a carbon tax would be the simplest way of encouraging people to use fewer fossil fuels while stepping up the search for nonpolluting alternatives.
And he didn’t waste the opportunity to hit back at Lonegan, who he said had “ridiculed and minimized” the seriousness of the climate issue.
“Let me take this moment to thank the leading Republican candidate for the Senate for embracing this argument because he showed exactly what I’m talking about here,” Holt said.
If Congressional Republicans are ignoring the evidence on climate change, Holt said they are also doing so on ‘trickle-down’ economics, which he condemned as a moral and practical failure.
“When you talk about economics you should ask, OK, what is the evidence that trickle-down economics works?” he said. “’Give more to the wealthy, presumably they know how to use money, that’s why they’re wealthy, and they have demonstrated they know how to use money because they’re wealthy.’ That’s nonsense, it just doesn’t work,” he said.
His policies on economics and climate change are part of a progressive agenda ranging from marriage equality and taxation to public investment in education and infrastructure.
“Progressive means extending the rights and opportunities, the blessings of America, to all people,” he said.
Asked whether his progressive vision also means redistribution of wealth, Holt said there should at least be no more tax breaks for the rich.
“It certainly means not giving additional benefits to those who have already done well,” he said. “It means asking from those who have done well a fair share of maintaining our society.”
Holt’s brand of earnest liberalism is much admired in Democratic circles, said Ross Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University.
“He is something out of a liberal Democratic dream book,” Baker said. “He’s a real Boy Scout.”
Honesty and seriousness are assets in New Jersey where many people suspect the motives of politicians, Baker said.
But it probably won’t be enough to win him the primary even if, as Baker predicts, the contest will be closer than the polls suggest.
Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, called Holt a “real, hard-working, serious, down-to-business Congressman.”
But he said some of Holt’s bills have failed in Congress because he doesn’t have sufficient influence with Democratic leaders. “He doesn’t have the same kind of juice that some others have to get bills passed,” Murray said.
Holt, 64, was brought up in a tradition of public service. His father, Rush D. Holt Sr., was a U.S. Senator for West Virginia from 1935 to 1941, while his mother, Helen Louise Holt, was the state’s first female Secretary of State, from 1957 to 1959.
Holt Jr. earned a bachelor’s degree in physics in 1970 and then a doctorate, also in physics, from New York University in 1981. He taught the subject, as well as public policy and religion, at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania from 1980 to 1988.
His intellectual powers had a public airing in 2011 when he beat an IBM computer in a game of Jeopardy.
“IBM had a project to program a supercomputer to think creatively about tricky questions,” Holt said. “And I thought, this is something to be applauded.”
IBM arranged a demonstration match of the TV general knowledge quiz, in which some members of Congress were contestants who were expected to lose to the computer. But Holt outscored the machine, and garnered social media fame when other contestants began tweeting that he had won.
“I guess you could say it went viral,” he said.
His cultivation of a professorial image doesn’t mean he avoids the rough-and-tumble of politics, as shown by his winning four terms in Congress, noted Murray of Monmouth University.
“This is a guy who understands retail politics,” Murray said. “He knows how to fight a hard political battle. He’s not some shy absent-minded professor.”
In the current Senate race, Holt doesn’t pull his punches when it comes to his main opponent, calling Booker a “celebrity” who raises money from out-of-state donors who don’t vote in New Jersey, and are not concerned with local issues.
“Mayor Booker has been jetting all over the country holding fundraisers with prominent people bringing in $10,000 a person,” Holt said in the interview. “That kind of broad celebrity is not what the election is about. It depends much more on the depth of support than the breadth of support. It depends much more on connections with New Jersey voters than it does with Californians and New Yorkers and Chicagoans.”
Holt also accused Booker of avoiding specific policy positions in some areas.
“Cory Booker has run the kind of campaign that one might expect a frontrunner to run, which is: smile a lot and say very little,” he said.
But he seized on Booker’s support for school vouchers, saying they are “an efficient way of siphoning money away from public schools”.
Asked to distinguish himself in the Senate race from U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone, another liberal with a similar voting record, Holt blamed Republican obstructionism in the House for the fact that there’s little to differentiate his and Pallone’s legislative votes.
“As long as John Boehner and the Republicans in Congress keep bringing up the atrocious pieces of legislation that they are bringing up, almost all Democrats will vote against them and we will have very similar voting records,” Holt said.
Even if he pulls off a major upset and wins the primary, Holt will be left with the huge problem that not enough people across the state recognize his name.
Although he is well-known and popular in his district, and has tried to become better known outside it, that’s not enough when you’re running for statewide office, political analysts said.
“He isn’t well known outside his own Congressional district,” said Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute of New Jersey Politics at Rider University.
Holt acknowledged he’s not nearly as widely known as Booker, but says that doesn’t matter in the primary.
“I don’t think name recognition is all that important in this primary,” he said. “It is about people going to the polls deliberately to choose someone they want as their senator. It’s not about going to the polls to see if they recognize the name once they get there.
“There will be very, very few voters who will wander into the polling booth on a day that almost nobody knows is election day and look for a name on the ballot that they recognize, and say ‘oh I recognize Cory Booker, I’ve seen him on Ellen DeGeneres or something, and I’m going to vote for him’” he said.
Holt believes that victory in the primary will depend on a candidate’s depth of support, whether he or she can identify their supporters, and who does the best job of turning them out on the day.
But even the loyalty of his liberal central-Jersey supporters is unlikely to close the yawning poll gap with Booker, argued Dworkin.
In order to become well enough known statewide to have a shot at beating Booker, Holt would have to spend huge sums on TV advertising in New York and Philadelphia, respectively the most and fourth-most expensive media markets in the country, and that’s prohibitive, Dworkin said.
Still, the awkward timing of the primary in the middle of the vacation season probably means that only the most committed partisans will vote, and that could augur well for a candidate like Holt whose solid liberal record inspires loyal support, Dworkin said.
“Very few people are going to vote,” Dworkin said. “Only the most dedicated Democrats will show up at the polls, and that could let Holt have a shot. Booker has a wide lead in the polls but it’s unclear that all those people are going to show up.”
According to Real Clear Politics, an average of four polls taken between June 3 and July 14 gave Booker 52.5 percent of the vote, way ahead of his nearest challenger, Pallone, with 9.8 percent, and Holt with 8.8 percent. State Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver trailed with 3.7 percent.
Holt knows he has a mountain to climb to win the Democratic nomination but has been the underdog in Congressional elections, and thinks he can come from behind again, Murray said.
“He believes he has beaten the odds before and he can beat them again this time,” he said.
Asked how he plans to become better known if he should advance to the general election, Holt declined to provide specifics but predicted he will prevail.
“After the primary, I will have no problem getting my name out,” he said. “I will have no problem getting New Jersey general election voters to take a look at who I am and what I do. I think I will have no difficulty winning them over.”