Jeff Bell’s upset victory over four-term U.S. Senator Clifford Case in the 1978 Republican primary was one of the great political campaigns in New Jersey history. Bell was a 35-year-old speechwriter for Ronald Reagan’s 1976 presidential campaign, and Case became the only incumbent U.S. Senator in New Jersey history to lose a primary.
Bell, who died on Saturday at the age of 74, was a thinker, an intellectual who was respected by both parties for the depth of his commitment to the causes he believed in.
After defeating Case, Bell lost the general election to Democrat Bill Bradley. He ran twice more for the Senate, losing to Millicent Fenwick in the 1982 Republican primary and to Cory Booker in the 2014 general election.
Bell attended Columbia University, was a Vietnam veteran, taught at Harvard and at the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers, and worked at the Manhattan Institute. In 1968, Bell was the only staffer still at Richard Nixon’s campaign office when word came that Robert Kennedy had been shot; he was the one who contacted top Nixon staffers to deliver the news.
While working on Reagan’s primary challenge to President Ford, Bell wrote a speech that proposed a transfer of federal government programs to the individual states – something Bell believed would reduce the federal budget by $90 billion and cut personal income taxes by about 23% while reducing the national debt. The speech backfired on Reagan when the Ford campaign said that state’s like New Hampshire would need to create a state income tax.
Ford beat Reagan in New Hampshire by less than 2,000 votes, and Bell’s $90 Billion Speech was blamed for the loss. The speech made Bell unemployable after the Reagan campaign ended.
So Bell and a few friends came up with an idea: move to New Jersey and challenge Case, a 74-year-old liberal Republican who was the Ranking Minority Member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Bell had leaned a few things about direct mail fundraising while working for Reagan and though they could raise enough money from national conservative donor lists to make it a race. Six years earlier, Case had been re-elected to a fourth term by 780,281 votes (62%-35%). But an unknown conservative with no financial support had still won 30% against case in the 1972 Republican primary.
Case had the age factor playing – back then, voters viewed 74 as older than they do today. But Bell, who has a history of civility in his three statewide campaigns, didn’t go at Case on the age issue in the way that Alphonse D’Amato did against Jacob Javits two years later in New York. Instead, he talked about Case being out of touch with New Jersey.
Bell sough to portray Case as a liberal in a Republican primary where conservatives were increasing in numbers. He pointed out that the Americans for Democratic Action (ADA), which advocated policies of the left side of the Democratic party, rated Case at 90%. Of he 100 members of the United States Senate, only Ted Kennedy earned a higher score. That put Case to the left of Senators like George McGovern.
Case had also voted with President Jimmy Carter more than any other Republican Senator. This was Carter’s mid-term election; ultimately, five Democratic U.S. Senators lost re-election that year and the GOP had a net gain of eight seats.
Bell campaigned in support of lower income taxes, smaller government, and in opposition to the sale of the Panama Canal, a hotbed issue for many Republicans. Case had voted for the sale. A January 1978 Rutgers-Eagleton poll showed 38% of New Jerseyans approving of the sale and 47% disapproving.
Case had the support of national and state labor unions and was a heavy favorite to win a fifth term. A May 1978 Rutgers-Eagleton poll showed that 19% of New Jersey voters thought Case was a Democrat, 40% believed he was a Republican, and 40% didn’t know. The same poll had case leading Bradley by twelve points, 44%-32%.
In the primary, Case didn’t take the Bell challenge seriously. He had been endorsed by the Republican National Committee and by most of the state’s GOP establishment.
The first sign that Case was in trouble was in April, when the Salem County Republican organization voted overwhelmingly to endorse Bell. GOP County Chairman Peter deWilde was supporting Bell. It was the state’s smallest county, and Case barely noticed when he had lost the organization line.
Republican State Committeeman Bob Stanley of Monmouth County, a premier GOP fundraiser in the 1970’s, became part of Bell’s fundraiser team.
Bell got a huge boost when Rep. Jack Kemp (R-New York), who had become a leader of the national conservative movement, endorsed him. This was a big deal because it was the first time Kemp had campaigned and fundraised for a candidate challenging an incumbent in a primary. A month earlier, Kemp had stumped for Rep. John Anderson (R-Illinois) in a primary against a conservative opponent.
Later on, columnist William F. Buckley endorsed Bell in his nationally-syndicated column, which substantially boosted the national fundraising abilities of the first-time candidate. Bell also had the active support of neocon Jude Wanniski, who lost his job as a deputy editor of the Wall Street Journal for distributing Bell leaflets at a North Jersey train station. He also attracted the backing of publisher Steve Forbes, Goldman Sachs Co-Chairman John Whitehead, and C. Douglas Dillon, who had served as U.S. Secretary of the Treasury under President John F. Kennedy. The Bell campaign ran TV ads touting Kennedy’s support of tax cuts.
An enormously low voter turnout enabled Bell to eke out a 3,473-vote win against Case, who had the organization lines everywhere but Salem.
Bell won in Bergen, Cumberland, Essex, Gloucester, Hunterdon, Monmouth, Morris, Salem, Somerset, Sussex, Union (Case’s home county) and Warren. Case carried Atlantic, Burlington, Camden, Cape May, Hudson, Mercer, Middlesex, Ocean, and Passaic.
Case, who finished the primary with considerable warchest still unspent, conceded defeat without a pledge to back the Republican nominee. “I like Jeff Bell very much, but I don’t know if I can support him,” Case said.
Democrats nominated Bradley, who was seeking his first public office after a Hall of Fame NBA career with the New York Knicks. When Bradley was playing basketball at Princeton in 1965, Bell was the radio sports broadcaster for Columbia. Princeton beat Columbia in both games that season.
Bradley beat Bell twelve points, 55%-43%, with a plurality of 238,760. Bell carried only Cape May (barely, by 350 votes), Hunterdon, Morris, Ocean (by just 1,661 votes), and Somerset.
Bell worked on Reagan’s 1980 presidential campaign from a position as chairman of Citizens for America, a grass-roots group funded by some Reagan friends. After U.S. Senator Harrison Williams was charged in the Abscam scandal, he set his sights on what would be an open Senate seat in 1982. Fenwick, a popular moderate congresswoman, also entered that race.
In 1981, Bell was an early supporter of Tom Kean’s campaign for the Republican gubernatorial nomination. That was a strategy engineered by Kean advisor Roger Stone, who helped convince Bell to give Kean, a moderate, some conservative cover in the GOP primary.
Kean was governor in early 1982 when Williams, just before the Senate was to vote on his expulsion. Because Bell and Fenwick had both endorsed him, Kean declined to take sides by appointing a caretaker to fill the seat. Some insiders had urged Kean to name someone who could run as an incumbent.
Fenwick defeated Bell in the Republican primary by 30,538 votes – 54%-46%. Bell carried Burlington, Camden, Cape May, Cumberland, Gloucester, Passaic, Salem and Sussex counties. Fenwick had represented Morris and Somerset counties in Congress for eight years and won the two – the core of Bell’s 1978 primary base — by a combined plurality of 21,393.
Democrat Frank Lautenberg defeated Fenwick in the general election.
Bell moved to Virginia after the 1982 race and worked for a series of conservative think tanks, ran an economic forecasting firm, wrote a few policy books, and ran is own public affairs firm. He helped run Kemp’s 1988 presidential campaign, and Gary Bauer’s campaign in 2000.
In early 2014, Bell returned to New Jersey to mount a quixotic bid for the United States Senate. He said he decided to challenge Booker only after he personally failed to recruit a stronger candidate.
Most Republicans viewed Booker as unbeatable and the party’s leader, Gov. Chris Christie, had no interest in becoming involved in that race. Bell won the Republican primary with 29% of the vote; he defeated Richard Pezzullo by 4,598 votes in a four-way race that included Brian Goldberg and Murray Sabrin. This became Bell’s second statewide primary win – 36 years apart.
Booker won the general election by 252,569 votes – 56%-42%. Bell won Cape May, Monmouth, Morris, Ocean, Salem, Somerset, Sussex and Warren counties.
On a personal note, I had known Jeff for 40 years; I got to know him when he ran in 1978, and while we kept in touch only sporadically, we began exchanging e-mails just last week. The last one came from him a little after noon on Saturday, just a few hours before he died: “As you can imagine, my patron saint is still Don Quixote.”