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.”