Senate candidates Menendez and Kyrillos to debate Thursday

State Sen. Joseph Kyrillos of Monmouth County.
State Sen. Joseph Kyrillos of Monmouth County.
Posted: October 05, 2012

With 30 days until the election, Democratic incumbent Robert Menendez and Republican challenger Joseph Kyrillos will face off Thursday in the first of three debates in the race for one of New Jersey's two U.S. Senate seats.

The campaign's tone has been positive so far, with both candidates releasing television ads devoid of attacks.

Menendez holds a double-digit lead in recent polls, and political observers believe the race will hinge on how President Obama fares in New Jersey. A Rutgers-Eagleton poll released Wednesday showed Obama 17 points ahead of Republican Mitt Romney, three points more than in August.

"Both Menendez and Kyrillos have been strong leaders in their party and they've both identified with the party brand," said Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University.

Those brands are "driving both the presidential race and the Senate race, so we shouldn't be surprised to see similar numbers in the polls," he said.

A month is a lifetime in politics, however, and debates - presidential or senatorial - can change things, Dworkin said.

The first debate between the New Jersey candidates will be held at 8 p.m. at Montclair State University and will be aired live on NJTV. The second will be broadcast at 7 p.m. Wednesday on New Jersey 101.5. The final debate, sponsored by the League of Women Voters, will be shown Oct. 14 on local ABC-TV affiliates and Univision.

The exchanges could help people get to know Kyrillos, a 24-year veteran of the Legislature. The Inquirer's New Jersey poll, which interviewed 600 likely voters statewide between Sept. 9 and 12, found that 59 percent hadn't heard of the Monmouth County state senator. Twenty-two percent of those polled said they had not heard of Menendez.

In his campaign's three cable television ads, Kyrillos, 52, of Middletown, does not mention Menendez, Democrats, or President Obama. Instead, he introduces himself to voters and offers to use "strong leadership" and engage in "less finger-pointing" to help repair the economy. One ad featured his wife, Susan, who described Kyrillos as "a different kind of Republican," one who has helped protect the state's beaches and supported shelters for abused women.

Kyrillos also name-drops Gov. Christie, a star in the national Republican Party, who this week called Kyrillos his "best friend in the legislature." Christie hasn't campaigned much with Kyrillos recently, instead traveling to campaign for out-of-state candidates. But the governor said this week that he had planned four appearances with Kyrillos.

Menendez, 58, of North Bergen, has offered tidbits of his voting record in his three cable television ads, which are running statewide. In one released Wednesday, he mentions $53 million in tax credits he secured to help biotech firms in New Jersey and funding he helped bring to the state to jump-start 750 solar projects.

Menendez and Kyrillos have largely stuck to national party talking points in their criticisms of one another.

Menendez says Kyrillos, like Romney, is out of step with the middle class and has advanced the interests of the wealthy at the expense of those with more modest means. He's called on Kyrillos to disavow Romney's controversial comment that 47 percent of Americans are dependent on government, a remark caught on hidden camera at a closed-door Florida fund-raiser with major donors in May.

Kyrillos has dismissed the attacks on him, saying they are intended to distract attention from economic problems caused by Democrats.

It's a tricky calculation for Kyrillos, who hammers Menendez and Obama for the country's financial woes but credits Christie and other Republicans for "making progress in New Jersey." New Jersey's unemployment rate hit 9.9 percent in August, higher than the 8.1 percent U.S. average; the state's economic recovery also has lagged behind the nation's.

Kyrillos this year voted against raising taxes on New Jersey's millionaires to fund tax cuts for those making less than $250,000 a year. If elected to the Senate, Kyrillos wants to cut the top business-tax rate and reduce all individual tax rates by 20 percent. He supports a continuation of the so-called George W. Bush tax cuts set to expire at the end of the year.

Menendez opposes extending the Bush tax cuts to those making more than $200,000 ($250,000 for a couple). He wants the Senate to use "pay-as-you-go" rules to limit spending and reel in the national debt.

The candidates both have sought out women voters, with Kyrillos describing his stance on abortion rights as "restricted . . . pro-choice" at a campaign event in Hoboken last month, according to the Jersey Journal. Kyrillos said he supported allowing abortions in the first and second trimesters, with parental notification in the case of a minor. A spokeswoman for the candidate said Wednesday that he does not support late-term abortions.

The Menendez camp seized on Kyrillos' statements, claiming that Kyrillos described himself as "pro-life" in a questionnaire from Project Vote Smart last year.

Kyrillos also has taken a moderate stance by not participating in what has become a rite of passage for Republicans seeking federal office: He declined to sign the Americans for Tax Reform pledge, in which signatories agree to vote against all tax increases. Kyrillos has not specified any tax loopholes he would close or how he would bring more money into the nation's coffers.

Menendez, who is running for his second full term, has consistently led Kyrillos in the polls: He was up by 12 points in the most recent poll, released last week by Monmouth University.

The Hudson County Democrat is far ahead in the money race. He reported $10 million cash on hand, about five times his opponent's stash, as of the last federal campaign finance report, filed in July. The next reports are due Oct. 15.


Contact Joelle Farrell at 856-779-3237 or jfarrell@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter at @joellefarrell.

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