Senate contest: Booker goes low-key, GOP’s Mehta and three independents struggle in his wake

Incumbent Cory Booker looks to float back to Washington
Credit: (rikfornj.com; AP Photo/Darron Cummings, File)
Republican Party candidate for Senate, Rik Mehta (L) and U.S. Sen. Cory Booker

In 2018, U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez and Republican Bob Hugin dragged one another — and were dragged by political committees — through the mud almost nightly in television ads for weeks before the election. They held near daily rallies and met in a televised debate. Lawn signs littered the state.

This year, it is easy to forget that U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, a Democratic star who had run for president, is up for reelection. The resurgent COVID-19 pandemic has canceled nearly all in-person events, and there are no TV ads and few signs to remind voters that Republican Rikin “Rik” Mehta is challenging Booker, along with three independents.

New Jersey voters have not elected a Republican to the U.S. Senate in 48 years, and Democrats are now the plurality of registered voters — about four in 10 — and outnumber Republicans by close to 1.1 million. Add to that Booker’s popularity, rock-star persona and outsize money advantage, and pundits put Mehta’s chances of victory akin to winning the lottery.

Mehta is trying to use Booker’s cachet against him — his website states “Because New Jersey Needs a Workhorse. Not a Showhorse” — and he is pushing a pro-business message to try to convince voters that he is the better choice. Mehta backs President Donald Trump — who got the support of fewer than 40% of registered New Jerseyans in the latest Fairleigh Dickinson University Poll on a number of issues, although his website does not contain any obvious photos of Mehta with the president. He spent the first five minutes of a recent Facebook video to supporters criticizing Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat.

Booker is running a typical incumbent’s campaign: Low-key, touting his record and all but ignoring his opponent. When asked about Mehta saying he did not think he needed to quarantine and would continue to campaign after attending Trump’s Bedminster fundraiser just hours before the president tested positive for COVID-19, Booker criticized only Trump by name.

“We have a real problem with the way Donald Trump and many of his acolytes have so politicized this virus, not just to endanger themselves, but Americans in general,” Booker said. “There is no doubt that President Trump and his acolytes have really contributed to the large level of infections and even deaths that we have in America, especially respective to other countries, who have done a significantly better job of constraining the damage of this pandemic than this administration has.”

An eye back toward the Senate

The former mayor of Newark, Booker is finishing his first full term in the Senate. He was initially elected in October 2013 to finish the term of Frank Lautenberg, who died four months earlier. He won his full term in November 2014 with a 14-point margin. After his yearlong presidential campaign did not gain traction, Booker bowed out of the race in mid-January and turned his eye back to a Senate race.

Booker, who was a Rhodes scholar and got a law degree from Yale University, said he is proud to have been able to get some significant legislation enacted, which he couldn’t have accomplished without working with the Republican majority. He was one of the champions of the First Step Act, signed into law at the end of 2018, which improved prison conditions, reformed federal sentencing rules and is reducing the prison population. He also co-sponsored the Fair Chance Act, which prohibits the federal government and federal contractors from asking about the criminal history of a job applicant prior to a conditional offer of employment.

“We, for freshmen, for a first term senator, got some really big laws done, including stuff just directly for New Jersey, which I’m really proud of,” Booker said last week, “everything from expanding health care for veterans pretty significantly here and stopping the offshore drilling all the way to serving a lot of our job-creating institutions like the Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, as well as expanding in many ways the infrastructural resources that we were getting relative to when I got in.”

Booker secured tens of millions in federal funding to remove lead from drinking water. He also co-sponsored legislation that got tucked into the 2017 tax overhaul law that has created Opportunity Zones, which provide incentives to draw new economic investment into communities in struggling areas.

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He is sponsoring a number of social justice bills, among them a “baby bonds” program, which would give all newborns a savings account with an initial deposit of $1,000 with contributions continuing annually through age 18 depending on income, and the Environmental Justice Act, which seeks to strengthen environmental protections for low-income communities and communities of color.

Booker sits on the Senate foreign relations, environment and public works, and small-business and entrepreneurship committees, as well as the high-profile judiciary committee, where he has been an outspoken critic of Trump’s three nominees to the U.S. Supreme Court.

He easily beat back a primary challenge from activist Lawrence Hamm. The only statewide poll in the race so far, by Emerson College in early September, gave Booker a 24-point lead over Mehta. In the swing 2nd Congressional District in South Jersey, currently represented by a Republican, Booker holds an eight-point lead among all registered voters, according to a Monmouth University Poll published last week.

Booker noted his close relationship with California Sen. Kamala Harris, the Democratic vice-presidential nominee with whom he serves on the judiciary committee, and said he hopes that if Harris and former Vice President Joe Biden win, that they will reverse some of the actions of the last four years.

“Donald Trump has been devastating for our state,” Booker said. He plans to work to “get our state more relief from taxes, like restoring our state and local tax deduction, all the way to getting a better share of a lot of the critical resources we need for infrastructure projects.”

Mehta: Booker has ‘forsaken New Jersey’

But Mehta said Booker has “forsaken New Jersey,” given he missed almost 65% of all votes in 2019. That was the most of any senator, according to the website GovTrack.us, but close to fellow presidential campaigners Harris and Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA). A spokeswoman for Booker said earlier this year that most of those votes were procedural or non-binding and that he was one of the most productive members of the Senate.

In his Tuesday Facebook update, Mehta charged Booker with “showboating” during judiciary hearings on Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination, which Mehta supports. He said Barrett is eminently qualified and should not be subject to “so many Senate Judiciary Committee hearings” since she only joined the federal bench in 2017.

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Mehta, 42, says he is an entrepreneur. He holds four degrees, including a Master of Laws from Georgetown University Law Center. He has worked as a pharmacist, held positions in both the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Department of Health, and worked at both the Pfizer and Aquestive Therapeutics pharmaceutical companies. He is a partner in Licentiam, Inc., a firm that streamlines the licensing process for health care professionals, and R & R Strategies, a regulatory policy and strategy firm. Mehta lives with his wife and three sons in Chester.

He bested four other Republicans in the primary but won just 38% of the vote and beat second-place finisher Hirsh Singh by 8,000 votes.

Mehta, who has no prior elective experience, said he decided to run for office because he believes the state is “heading in the wrong direction,” from higher taxes to businesses closing.

Small business relief, controlling COVID-19, mail-in voting

He cited saving businesses as his top priority. Several of the positions Mehta outlines on his website center on businesses. He is calling on the federal government to provide more COVID-19 relief loans to small businesses and bring drug and other manufacturing jobs back from China, which he said would both create thousands of good jobs in the state.

Getting COVID-19 under control, and quickly, is another priority for Mehta. He defended his statements about not quarantining after the Bedminster fundraiser, saying he “was nowhere near anyone who tested positive at the event” and that the golf course “followed safety and health guidelines the CDC and state required, including safe social distancing, face masks and ample hand sanitizer.”

Mehta’s stance on immigration appears to be more in line with Trump’s than Booker’s and other Democrats. He supports “secure borders” and a clear delineation of who can enter the country and apply for citizenship before considering “policies for dreamers and the undocumented who currently live on American soil.”

Asked about Trump’s refusal to agree to a peaceful transfer of power should he lose, Mehta repeated Republican talking points.

“The president must ensure there is a free and fair election,” he said. “With the large amounts of mail-in voting, we are already seeing ballots turn up missing or in the trash. These are now disenfranchised voters. We must protect our laws of democracy and assure that the results that are certified are not controverted. It is why it’s more important than ever that we have a full complement on the Supreme Court and that we must confirm Judge Barrett with expediency.”

But like Booker, he says he supports restoring the federal income-tax deduction for state and local taxes.

While money isn’t everything — Hugin spent $36 million of his own funds to outspend Menendez and lost — it is important to help a candidate get his message out, particularly one with little name recognition. It’s unclear whether Mehta will have enough to do that. The candidates’ latest federal campaign filings are not due until Thursday but as of June 30, Booker had almost $3.5 million in the bank, compared to Mehta’s $18,000. So far neither had gotten any assistance from state or federal party committees, according to the Center for Responsive Politics’ OpenSecrets website.

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Booker has far outspent Mehta on Google and Facebook, OpenSecrets’ data show. The incumbent’s Senate campaign alone has spent $136,000 on ads, compared with $900 by Mehta. The Republican is even being outspent by independent candidate Veronica Fernandez of Long Valley, who has pumped almost $6,800 into Facebook ads.

Fernandez running on health care platform

Fernandez, a lifelong New Jerseyan who is married with two children, is running under the slogan “Of, By, For!” She and her husband have owned and operated a small commercial electrical contracting business since 2008.

Credit: (Madelyn Hoffman; Daniel Burke; Veronica Fernandez)
Independent Senate candidates, L to R: Madelyn Hoffman of the Green Party, Daniel Burke and Veronica Fernandez

A graduate of Sussex County Technical School who attended the County College of Morris, Fernandez does not apologize for her lack of a college degree.

“I learned to work with my head and my hands and have been able to create a good life for my family and a successful business to support it,” she said. “I have been told that I am not educated enough to seek such a high office and my response has been ‘Look at where our most highly educated members of Congress have gotten us. It’s time for some real representation from ordinary citizens.’”

She said she decided to run because she is worried about the future of the nation, including education, health care and infrastructure problems.

“All our issues, from health care and immigration to gun violence and environment have one common root and that is money, particularly money in Congress,” Fernandez said. “Special interests and big donors have too much power. Public opinion matters very little on the effectiveness of any laws being passed … Until we get the money out of our campaigns and clean up the corruption and lobbying, nothing of any significance will change on any issue.”

Getting a constitutional amendment to deal with the Supreme Court’s Citizens United campaign finance decision is among her top priorities. Fernandez also supports term limits for members of Congress. She backs Medicare for All and considers health care to be “a human right.”

Hoffman, Burke also running as independents

Running under the banner of the Green Party is Madelyn Hoffman, an experienced candidate and longtime activist who lives in Flanders.

Hoffman holds a bachelor’s degree from Wesleyan University and a master’s degree in public administration from Rutgers University in Newark. She teaches political science and public speaking at Hudson County Community College. She said she is running because neither of the major parties is addressing “the political and economic divide” in the country.

“Both political parties are controlled by their big money donors, both corporate and individual, and as such they have not taken the actions necessary to combat climate change, end imperialist wars, provide single-payer improved and expanded health insurance coverage for all, or made the people and the planet their priority, instead of focusing most on their own profits,” she said. “I’ve spent nearly 20 years as an activist on issues of toxic chemical pollution in New Jersey followed by nearly 20 more years as an activist for peace and justice. Running as a Green enables me to connect and work with individuals and groups throughout the state committed to creating a more sustainable state, country and world.”

Those views form the basis for her campaign. Hoffman said she supports “an eco-socialist Green New Deal, one that confronts climate change, establishes a workers’ bill of rights, and cuts the military budget by 50%.” She said this would include closing down the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement and address income inequality and racial injustice. Hoffman wants to prevent the U.S. from using the military to intervene elsewhere in the world. She would use the money saved on military spending to instead fund education, a single-payer Medicare-for-all plan, tuition-free college and affordable housing.

Daniel Burke of Bogota is a Harvard University graduate and educator who is a supporter of Lyndon LaRouche, the controversial perennial presidential candidate who died last year. Burke said he is running because “the world needs the ideas of Lyndon LaRouche” and he is “devoted” to bringing LaRouche’s ideas to light.

If elected, Burke would promote the peaceful collaboration of the U.S., Russia and China on the major scientific missions over the next 50 years, including the industrialization of the moon and Mars. He backs the 2020 LaRouche plan for 1.5 billion new productive jobs worldwide, the restoration of the Glass-Steagall Act that separated investment banking from retail banking, and the creation of a new Bretton Woods agreement among major nations to govern monetary relations and give every nation the right to economic development.