By John Celock
For New Jersey Republicans, what’s old is new again.
Jeff Bell, who was the GOP’s 1978 U.S. Senate nominee, captured the Republican nomination to face off against Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) Tuesday evening. The race sets up a November contest between the first term senator, viewed as the favorite to win a full term, and the last man to defeat a sitting U.S. senator in New Jersey history.
Bell, a former aide to President Ronald Reagan, captured 29.4 percent of the vote, winning what became a nail biter against businessman Rich Pezzullo who received 26.2 percent of the vote. Businessman Brian Goldberg captured 24.9 percent and college professor Murray Sabrin received 19.4 percent in the low turnout primary. While Goldberg was the third place finisher he won seven counties, while Pezzullo and Bell each won six counties and Sabrin captured two counties.
Booker was unopposed for the Democratic nomination.
Bell had been in third place for most of the evening, with Goldberg and Pezzullo alternating the lead in the early returns. Much of Goldberg’s support came from heavily Republican Ocean County, where he had the backing the county party organization. Pezzullo held on to hope as the final returns came in, telling The Celock Report via Twitter that he was waiting for main-in votes to be counted in Union and Monmouth Counties, where he was backed the county parties.
In 1978 Bell unseated then Sen. Clifford Case (R-N.J.) in the GOP primary before losing the general election to Democrat Bill Bradley. Bell then lost the 1982 GOP Senate primary to then Rep. Millicent Fenwick before relocating to Virginia and Florida for three decades. Bell returned to New Jersey earlier this year to seek the Senate seat.
The little known GOP field came after a series of top Republicans including Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr. (R-Westfield, Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick (R-Westfield) and Assemblyman Jay Webber (R-Morris Plains) declined to challenge Booker this year.
Booker, the former Newark mayor, won an October 2013 special election to complete the remaining 14 months of the term of the late U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D), who died a year ago. Booker, who had entered the special election the favorite, defeated Republican Steve Lonegan by 10 points to win the Senate seat.
Lonegan, former Bogota mayor, was defeated Tuesday in his GOP primary bid for a congressional seat in South Jersey.
Republicans have not won a Senate election in New jersey since Case’s 1972 victory. The only Republicans to represent the state in the Senate since Case’s departure have been Nick Brady and Jeff Chiesa, who were both appointed to fill seats until special elections could be held.