"Welcome to our campaign headquarters,” Jeff Bell said to an out-of-town reporter the other evening, standing in the lobby of a convention hotel here, hard off the Interstate. He wasn’t kidding: This is indeed the headquarters of the Jeff Bell for U.S. Senate campaign, for the moment anyway. He could do worse. The lobby is airy and spacious, the bathrooms are clean and commodious, and the location can’t be beat.
A half-dozen fresh-faced young volunteers were perched on sofas and overstuffed chairs, laptops open, plugged into the WiFi the hotel provides free of charge.
Bell looked them over good-naturedly. “Our campaign staff,” he said. Three of them are his children.
If there’s a single phrase that summarizes the Bell campaign on the cusp of Labor Day, it’s one he repeats often: “We’re broke.” The encampment in the hotel lobby is strong evidence that he’s not kidding about this either. In June he beat a motley of candidates in the New Jersey Republican primary and earned the right to challenge Democratic senator Cory Booker, who is running for his first full term after winning the seat left open last year by the death of Frank Lautenberg. Booker is a well-known former mayor of Newark and the love object of a swooning press, both in-state and out. He’s the heavy favorite in navy blue New Jersey, and Bell has been stymied at every turn in his effort to raise money for his campaign.
The national party, notably the National Republican Senatorial Committee, has refused to help a race that most Washington chin-pullers and green eyeshades agree is hopeless. “The day after the primary, we called them,” Bell said about the NRSC. “Five times. They wouldn’t even return our calls. They won’t meet with us when we go to Washington.”
Even independent groups like the Club for Growth or the Senate Conservatives Fund, who brag of their daring and courage in supporting conservative insurgents, show no willingness to pitch in. It doesn’t help that Booker already has $3.5 million in cash on hand, thanks to a career spent cultivating Wall Street moneymen. If you were mayor of Newark, you’d spend a lot of time in Manhattan too.
What frustrates Bell and his many well-wishers is that the race against Booker may not be as hopeless as the spreadsheets suggest. At 55 percent to 44 percent, Booker’s special election victory last year over a self-funding Republican unknown was weaker than most people expected. A few weeks ago, in early August, a poll by Quinnipiac University of registered voters showed Booker’s support at 47 percent, below the 50 percent mark that any healthy incumbent should expect. Amazingly, Bell was hard on his heels at 37 percent, even though the same poll showed that fewer than 25 percent knew who he was. A CBS/New York Times poll—this time of likely voters—put Bell within 7 points of Booker.
Bell has been here before—or close, anyway. In 1978 he entered the New Jersey Republican primary against the incumbent senator, Clifford Case, an exemplar of the liberal Republicans who once roamed the Northeast but are now found only in museums of natural history, stuffed in extinction as they were in life. To the amazement of everyone, Bell included, he deposed Case easily, though he went on to lose the general election, badly, to the celebrated basketball star Bill Bradley. As it transpired, Case was the last Republican elected to the U.S. Senate from New Jersey. Bell tried again four years later, running against another liberal Republican in the 1982 Senate primary, and lost.
He decided to run only earlier this year, he says, “around the time of the Super Bowl.” He had a week to roll up the 1,000 signatures necessary to get on the ballot. On its face the decision might look impetuous, not to say quixotic. Bell is 70, a well-regarded Washington advocate and policy entrepreneur, author of two highly original books on American politics, and a genuine intellectual—not the profile of a typical Jersey candidate. He hasn’t lived in the state since his last lost election 30 years ago. Tall and gray and angular, deliberate in manner and speech, he has none of Booker’s telegenic bonhomie.
His decision to run, far from impetuous, came as a kind of last resort, the anticlimax of a “long, rather involved process.” For several years now Bell and his associates at the American Principles Project, one of the many advocacy groups and think tanks he has either founded or led, have been making the rounds on Capitol Hill. They’ve been trying to persuade congressmen and senators to sign on to his grand policy project, or what some with a continental flair might call his idée fixe: taming the Federal Reserve’s loose-money regime by pinning the U.S. dollar to the price of gold.