As the race for a U.S. Senate enters its final days, incumbent Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Republican challenger Jeff Bell have persistently tried to define their opponent for voters.
In their lone debate, Bell mentioned President Barack Obama almost as often as he named Booker, frequently in an “Obama-Booker” combination. For his part, Booker talked of “my Tea Party opponent” to the point where Lewis Carroll might have felt summoned.
The thrust and parry of this campaign has had one advantage over others across the nation. Most of the purported attacks are true, although not the whole story.
So when Booker talks of Bell spending three decades in Virginia and moving back to New Jersey just to make this race, that’s something the Republican has readily acknowledged, even admitting its might seem “presumptuous.”
When Bell maintains that Democrats have become the party of Wall Street, well, that’s also true of Republicans. But it’s certainly true of Booker, who had raised almost $1.9 million from the financial sector through June 30, according to an analysis of his Federal Election Commission filings by opensecrets.org.
That figure is almost enough to have Booker rubbing shoulders with the golden-haired boys of high finance, like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) — who got almost as much from the National Association of Realtors alone — and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY).
Despite the similar strategies, though, this remains an unequal contest, which those FEC filings revealed starkly.
The breakdown of Booker’s individual contributions ends on June 30 because Senate campaigns are not required to file electronically. An FEC note says many of the third-quarter paper financial reports are so voluminous that staff has not been able to enter them yet.
But even with incomplete data, the Booker campaign reported $17.6 million in receipts. Bell’s third-quarter report is up already on the FEC site, and shows he has raised a total of $408,557. Put another way, Bell has reported spending $319,095, just $46 more than Booker has gotten from the pro-Israel lobby alone.
So on October 14, Bell was sending out an e-mail with a link to a prospective 30-second television ad , asking for enough contributions to get it on the air.
“It’s basically our radio ad that we’ve been able to run,” Bell said. Eventually, he raised enough money.
Booker already had an ad up for weeks, featuring him standing in front of a slogan, “Common Ground”, talking about his willingness to work with anyone to help New Jersey.
And he left that debate, which aired Sunday on ABC stations in New York and Philadelphia, with another commercial on Jersey values, intended to contrast his views with some of the opinions Bell set forth in a 2012 book “The Case for Polarized Politics: Why America Needs Social Conservatism.”
If as Bell suggests, Booker remains better known as a friend of billionaire Mark Zuckerberg than as a Washington player, it is also true that the former Newark mayor has only been in the capital since last year. He finished out the unexpired term of the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) after beating rightwing Republican Steve Lonegan in a special election.
The current contest is for a full six-year term, and whoever wins will still be a junior senator in what is likely to remain a gridlocked Congress, with everything revolving around the 2016 presidential election.
Against that background, the self-image the Booker campaign is trying to present is of a reasonable man, willing to work with the other party in an era when a dysfunctional Congress finds little favor in public opinion polls.
Bell’s message is that he worked for Ronald Reagan, and even worked with Democrats in an attempt to forge immigration reform. But his main talking point is a bit offbeat, returning America to the gold standard.
“I don’t think people find it esoteric, well, maybe esoteric, but they understand money that keeps its value,” which Bell said would be the effect of his monetary change.
Bell argues that his lack of funding has forced him to concentrate on one issue. Yet it is also true that he spent four years as policy director of the American Principles Project.
Founded by two Princeton residents and conservative activists, Robert George, a jurisprudence professor, and hedge fund principal Sean Fieler, the group has made the gold standard a major focus. APP recently hired Lonegan to continue Bell’s work promoting the issue.
Booker has little patience for such ideological theorizing. The gold standard is “a 19th century idea that’s defunct and debunked universally,” he said.
Instead, he has stressed his support for women’s health programs, contraception, abortion and equal pay for equal work. The latter is at the top of Booker’s economic concerns, which include stimulating jobs, rebuilding infrastructure, and preserving Social Security.
Bell has inspired at least some other conservative intelligentsia. William Kristol, who has backed Bell in “The Weekly Standard,” put $2,000 into the campaign. Lawrence Kudlow of CNBC is another contributor, along with economist Arthur Laffer, the father of supply-side economics.
One thing those three have in common with almost all Bell contributors, though, is that they do not live in New Jersey. An abundance of out-of-state money is not unusual, but the latest FEC filings show the campaign has gotten individual contributions from only a baker’s dozen of Garden State residents.
Of course, Booker’s fund-raising reach extends far beyond New Jersey. He counts among his supporters Ben Affleck, Starz CEO Christopher Albrecht, Paul Anka, Carnival Cruises chairman Micky Arison — and that just scratches the surface of the “A’s.”
Despite his financial disadvantage, Bell managed to hang around in the polls through the summer into early fall, trailing by manageable estimates of 8-15 points. As the leaves turned, however, public opinion surveys showed the dynamics of the campaign all going for Booker.
A Fairleigh Dickinson PublicMind poll released October 21 showed Booker with a 16-point lead. A survey by Stockton Polling Institute of the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy released October 23 showed Booker’s margin at 24 points after factoring in voters “leaning” one way or the other.
The trend in the Stockton polls has been even better for Booker. The incumbent’s favorables have been creeping up, and his negatives are lower than Bell’s. In the latest edition, more respondents were unfamiliar with Bell, 37 percent, than had a favorable view of him, 35 percent.
“This is late in the game for the challenger to still be introducing himself to the voters,” Daniel Douglas, director of the Hughes Center, said in a press release. “It may be impossible at this point to overcome Booker’s advantage in fundraising, name recognition, and party registration.”
Among voters sampled by the poll, the top issues are jobs, property taxes, the economy, taxes in general, and education. Issues that soak up much of the national media’s attention — immigration, guns, abortion — combined to rank as most important to just over 1 percent of those surveyed.
Such results are no surprise, said Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University.
“They’re showing what most observers expected, that Cory Booker is the clear and overwhelming favorite to retain his seat,” Dworkin said.
From the start, the odds were stacked against Bell, “a principled and decent fellow who probably ran as strong a campaign as you could run with the limited resources he had.”
If anything, though, projections of a pending Booker landslide could help Republicans, Dworkin said.
“The concern the Democrats should have … is that their voters will stay home and inadvertently make this much closer than it should be, and hurt their candidates in contested races farther down the ticket,” he said.