Long Branch is known for many things—the beaches, boardwalk, dining, and diversity—but being a bastion of Republicanism is not one of them. Indeed, with a Democratic Mayor in office for twenty-two years, and a voter registration profile that benefits the Democratic Party thirty-one to thirteen percent, the GOP represents the regional opposition, in many ways characterize the reality of shore communities in the progressive-leaning Sixth Congressional District. That said, if the stellar turnout at the Fourth Annual Republican Reception, held at the Portuguese Club last Friday evening, is any sign of the times, perhaps there are good things on the horizon for the local GOP!
Activists, partisans, and candidates congregated for what will be one of the final events before Election Day, an opportunity to meet their candidates for United States Senate, the House of Representatives, and Monmouth County Freeholder. Foremost among these contenders, and likely the biggest draw, was former Reagan confidante Jeff Bell, running against incumbent Cory Booker, the former Newark Mayor and Twitter’s foremost celebrity politician.
Though he ran a very low-profile primary campaign, Bell emerged from the four-candidate field with twenty-nine percent of the vote and his party’s nomination, ultimately earning the endorsements of previous opponents and charging forward with a unified base. Since then, the conservative hopeful has chipped away at the Democrat’s supposedly unbreakable lead, whittling the gap between the two to a mere fifteen points. That may still seem like a high number—and in some races, it would be—but during a United States Senate campaign in New Jersey, for a seat that an elected Republican hasn’t held since the early 1970s, that is a surprisingly small percentage.
A lot has changed in regards to campaign tactics since last year’s Senatorial Special Election. Back then, Cory Booker, running against arch-conservative Tea Partier Steve Lonegan, rarely campaigned in New Jersey and largely ignored his opponent’s existence entirely. The strategy seemed to be to provide the Republicans with as little attention as possible, but in the end, Booker only received ten percent higher than his opponent. This year, the Democrats are doing this differently. More active in their efforts, they have attacked Bell at every possible turn—be it for his support of the Gold Standard or use of the term “beach” to refer to the Jersey Shore—and have tried to draw as much attention to his affiliation with conservatism as possible.
And yet, despite these efforts, a recent Monmouth University poll shows Bell is behind by only fifteen percent.
Add in that the Republican’s war-chest is astronomically lower than his opponent’s (according to the Federal Election Commission, he only had $91,116 cash-on-hand as of October, while Booker had $3,495,321), and it appears many in the Garden State are less enthralled with their incumbent Senator than the media has implied. Cory Booker may very well be Hollywood’s favorite political infatuation, but the consensus in New Jersey is apparently far from unanimous.
Few in the general public have probably even noticed there is an election this year; however, the local Republican Party’s support for Bell’s candidacy was clear. His speech, during which attendees were provided with a verbal preview of the then upcoming broadcast of the Senatorial debate, was warmly received and touched upon everything from the recent Ebola Virus scare to the Gold Standard.
While Booker has warned Bell, who penned a book titled The Case for Polarizing Politics, will contribute to gridlock if sent to Washington, the former Reagan speechwriter has pointed to his respectable working relationship with Democrats, including the late Senator Ted Kennedy, and support for comprehensive bi-partisan immigration reform. Such views are surprisingly forward thinking for a self-professed conservative, and Bell even boasted of previous work on behalf of La Raza, an advocacy organization that aims to protect the civil rights of Hispanic immigrants, during Sunday’s televised debate. It is worth noting that La Raza is a perennial target of attack from the Tea Party and Rightwing radio pundits, and Bell’s affiliation with the group should help dispel any doubt regarding his professed desire to expand the GOP’s diversity.
Jeff Bell wasn’t the only candidate courting the Long Branch Republicans. Attorney Anthony Wilkinson, who is running against Congressman Frank Pallone in the Sixth District, was also in attendance. His speech touched upon many of the same issues as the Senate hopeful, though he also criticized President Obama for not sufficiently addressing the issue of unaccompanied youth, many of whom encounter horrendous and dangerous conditions, crossing the border illegally. Wilkinson emerged from an uncontested primary to enjoy tremendous support from social conservatives, particularly those in the Tea Party and evangelical Christians.
Incumbent Freeholders Lillian Bury and Gary Rich, seeking re-election in a highly contentious campaign against Larry Lutrell and Joe Grillo, defended their record in office, dismissing their Democratic opponents’ frequent attacks as both offensive and without merit. State Senator Jennifer Beck, Assemblywoman Caroline Cassagrande, former Highlands Mayor Anna Little, former Congressional candidate David Larson, and former Long Branch City Councilman Anthony Giordano were also present, the first two of which delivered speeches extolling the virtues of Republicanism while encouraging continued participation in electoral endeavors.
Though they represent the electoral minority in Long Branch, the local Republican Party seems enthusiastic about its odds. As Chairman Raymond Patsky noted in his closing address, last May’s mayoral election was determined by fewer than three-hundred votes; in a city where every single ballot counts, there is always the chance for an electoral upset…which is exactly what the GOP is hoping for.