A big edge in campaign funds doesn't always equate with a big lead in the polls. Still, a nonpartisan Quinnipiac University poll released Wednesday gave Menendez a lead over Kyrillos, a veteran Monmouth County state senator, 47 to 34 percent. The survey showed the Democrat leading everywhere except in the North Jersey shore areas that are Kyrillos' base.
Kyrillos, 52, easily defeated three opponents in the GOP primary. Menendez, 58, faced no opposition for his party's nomination for a second six-year term in the Senate.
Some polls last year showed a relatively high number of prospective voters who said they had "no opinion" of Menendez's job performance, which fueled speculation that his support was soft and that he was vulnerable, said David Redlawsk, director of Rutgers University's Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling. Since those early polls, he said, Menendez's favorability ratings have improved.
Moreover, Menendez's fund-raising lead could prove insurmountable when it comes to reaching voters via television and radio advertising - an especially costly business in the Garden State.
"Money matters a lot in New Jersey because the media markets are so expensive," said Redlawsk. "You have to buy New York and Philadelphia - we have no TV media market of our own - and [Kyrillos'] $2 million on hand for a statewide race just doesn't cut it."
In Pennsylvania's contest for the Senate, the duel for dollars seems more evenly matched - but that's deceptive. Incumbent Democrat Robert P. Casey Jr. showed total receipts of $7.6 million by June 30; GOP challenger Tom Smith had taken in $7.9 million since launching his run.
But $6.4 million of Smith's total came from two personal loans he made to his campaign. And while more than $5 million in Casey's coffers came from individual donors, just $852,524 of Smith's receipts came from individuals.
And as of June 30, the FEC reports show, Casey's campaign had about $6.2 million cash on hand while Smith had about $2.3 million.
"While self-funders can win, they are not raising money from a broad base and that often is a sign that they will have difficulties," said Redlawsk. "Political parties like self-funders to some degree because they don't have to worry about the money. But self-funders who don't build a base often find themselves on the wrong side of the outcome."
Smith, a coal miner from Armstrong County in western Pennsylvania who went on to own a coal company, bested four challengers in the April GOP primary - including businessman Steve Welch, the candidate backed by Gov. Corbett and the state GOP.
Smith's faceoff against Casey could be tougher.
At the moment, said Terry Madonna, pollster and director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College, most independent political analysts calculate that Smith is trailing Casey by somewhere between 14 and 20 percentage points among likely voters.
That gap could narrow if Smith pours more of his personal wealth into the race.
But for now, "Casey doesn't have to raise two or three times more than what he has already raised," Madonna said. "He needs just enough to answer Smith's attacks."
Smith is expected to tie Casey to President Obama's policies and to portray the Pennsylvania senator as lackluster. The incumbent "is in step with Obama on the big things - health insurance reform, the stimulus, the auto bailout - but [Casey] will make the argument that he is independent," said Madonna.
The hope for Smith, then, may lie in reaching into his own deep pockets again.
"With Smith's money, can he begin to make inroads?" the veteran pollster said. "That's the critical point. Can he cool Casey's lead? His first goal has to be to get within single digits."
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