By Dennis “DJ” Mikolay
Former Mayor Steve Lonegan, among the many Republicans assembled at Shackamaxon Country Club in Scotch Plains last Thursday night, has reason to be confident in his king-making abilities. The occasion in question: a fund-raiser for Jeff Bell, once a confidante of President Ronald Reagan, currently the GOP nominee for United States Senate.
Mayor Lonegan, himself a former candidate for the office currently held by Senator Cory Booker, was one of the fund-raiser’s co-hosts. It was an event few believed would be possible, as nobody really thought Bell, who previously ran for United States Senate in 1978 and 1982, stood any chance during last June’s four-candidate primary. He lacked endorsements, money, or name recognition. The idea that his campaign would eventually be hosting General Election fund-raisers, mingling with the national media, and encroaching upon Senator Booker’s presumably unbreakable lead seemed like fantasy, too unlikely to ever occur.
And yet, despite the odds, all of the aforementioned has since come to fruition. Mayor Lonegan, among only a handful of figures to openly endorse Bell during the primary, can rest assured that his political astuteness has been confirmed by recognition of the underdog candidate’s potential. After all, recent polls show Bell is only trailing the Democrat by seven points, a shocking development in a state where the GOP seemed poised to abandon future Senatorial efforts as pointless. Thus, the optimism and sense of achievement pervasive at this fund-raiser were reflective of the fact the Republicans seem to be gaining traction, something they really aren’t used to doing.
Rich Pezzullo, the conservative activist who represented the strongest competition during the primary, was also on hand in Scotch Plains, having since enthusiastically accepted a position as the campaign’s co-chair. Pezzullo made his support and admiration for his former adversary apparent and was hardly at a loss for words while introducing the Republican nominee:
“He’s advised Congressman, he’s advised Senators, [and] Presidents, Ronald Reagan, in fact,” Pezzullo said. “Jeff actually helped write what we know as the Reagan tax cut legislation. This is the type of skilled, go-to legislator that New Jersey has the opportunity to send to Washington, D.C.”
Yes, the opportunity is certainly there—Bell’s supporters already know that—but many within the GOP remain skeptical as to whether or not the Garden State’s voters will take it. They have become soured by continuous electoral defeat, aware that Republican Senate contests are viewed as a lost cause in New Jersey, innately futile given the strength of the Democratic Party. True, Mayor Lonegan came close last year, but the same couldn’t be said for most of his predecessors.
That was past, however, and since then the Republicans have undergone another primary, selected a new candidate, and there is a sense of subtle enthusiasm in the air. He may not have the PAC money or celebrity endorsements, but Bell might prove himself a more formidable contender than anyone was previously willing to admit.
It is voter support that truly matters, and in that respect, the GOP may be justified in their optimism. The latest polls show Bell doing well among Republicans, which was to be expected; however, he has actually surpassed Senator Booker amongst independents, the key demographic in any New Jersey election. Perhaps the same type of upset that twice resulted in primary victories can be harnessed during a General Election?
“One of the reasons nobody predicted I would win the primary is I didn’t compete for a single party line,” said Bell. “I was of the opinion voters do not go by who is where on the line, that they make their own decisions, and they did. They were willing to vote for the one candidate out of the four who didn’t have a single party line that had been awarded to him.”
Voters seem to be receptive, and while the campaign hopes to appeal to younger demographics with solutions to the so-called “jobless recovery” (the bane of any recent graduate’s career search), Bell may also benefit from the fact that a large portion of the electorate remembers what life was like during an era of fiscal and economic abundance.
“The electorate here is…old enough to remember better times,” said Bell. “It’s old enough to remember it doesn’t have to be like this. If I can fund my campaign and talk about my solution to the economic crisis and [Cory Booker’s] lack of one—his desire to continue doing what we have been doing for five and a half years, which has not worked—I am confident the voters of New Jersey are capable of sending a message that will resonate.”
Of course, the ultimate question on everyone’s mind remains the same: can Jeff Bell, conservative Reaganite Republican, defeat national superstar Senator Cory Booker? Rich Pezzullo had the answer:
“People say: ‘can Jeff Bell beat Cory Booker?’” Pezzullo asked. “No, Jeff Bell is one man, one vote…can we beat Cory Booker? That’s the question we have to ask ourselves! As people all look at Jeff Bell and say: ‘can he beat Cory Booker?’ I invite them to look to themselves and say: ‘can I beat Cory Booker’s team?’ Because that’s what it really takes.”