In N.J., Menendez and Kyrillos wage a (mostly) tame campaign for Senate

State Sen. Joe Kyrillos says he is a moderate and "a different kind of Republican."
State Sen. Joe Kyrillos says he is a moderate and "a different kind of Republican." (AP)
Posted: October 28, 2012

It's come to this: In the final days before the Nov. 6 election, the fiery rhetoric in the race for one of New Jersey's U.S. Senate seats has centered on stolen lawn signs and an ad that takes comments out of context.

In fact, the race between Democratic incumbent Robert Menendez and Republican challenger Joe Kyrillos has been so tame that some local politicos have questioned whether Kyrillos is putting forth a genuine effort.

"Organizational Republicans around the state are not happy with him because his campaign has not been vigorous, and that's going to hurt them down ballot," said Patrick Murray, a political analyst and pollster at Monmouth University.

Kyrillos campaign manager Chapin Fay took umbrage.

"Joe has been out on the campaign trail every day since he announced his candidacy, meeting and talking with New Jerseyans about his vision to get Americans back to work and undo the failed . . . economic policies implemented by Sen. Menendez," he said.

Menendez holds a strong lead in the polls - 18 points in the latest Inquirer New Jersey Poll - but that may have less to do with Kyrillos than with his party. The state last elected a Republican to the U.S. Senate in 1974.

But in a state where the best-known Republican - Gov. Christie - owns the spotlight, Kyrillos' campaign has allowed him to introduce himself as more than just a member of the minority in the Statehouse.

"This positions Kyrillos to be a relatively well-known Republican, which is a hard thing to do in New Jersey," said Brigid Harrison, a political science professor at Montclair State University.

Kyrillos, 55, a state senator from Monmouth County, said he felt "a sense of duty" to run at "a critical, crisis-like time for the country."

A 24-year veteran of the state Legislature, Kyrillos says he has been a consensus-builder in Trenton, and he would bring the same approach to Washington.

"I'm not going to try to tell you I'm some maverick, and I'm certainly not a flamethrower," he said at a recent Inquirer Editorial Board meeting. "That's the problem down there. . . . We have too many flamethrowers, from both sides. I want to work with everybody to get the job done."

Menendez, 55, of Hudson County, is running for his second full term. Although a junior member of the chamber, he has been involved with several major bills, including the most recent economic sanctions on Iran.

If reelected, Menendez wants to help carry out President Obama's health-care plans, support additional tax breaks for the middle class and the poor, and help bring more high-tech and clean-energy jobs to New Jersey, he said at an Inquirer Editorial Board meeting.

"As I travel the state, there are far too many people who say to me, 'Senator, this is the first time in my life that I have been unemployed,' " Menendez said. "While we have made some progress from what we had inherited in 2008 . . . we still have a lot more work to do, and that drives me every day."

The campaign has been unusually cordial, but the two camps wagged fingers at each other last week.

In its first network television ad, the Kyrillos campaign said Menendez supports an economic strategy that has led to higher gas prices, higher unemployment, and lower incomes.

The ad then inserts a clip of Menendez from one of the candidates' three debates.

"Would I do all those things all over again? Absolutely," Menendez says.

But Menendez was referring to his votes for middle-class tax cuts and tax credits for college students.

"Joe Kyrillos' desperation has sunk to the level of a juvenile prank in a heavily edited, misleading video that simply doesn't tell the truth," Menendez's campaign manager, Michael Soliman, said.

On Wednesday, it was Kyrillos' turn to be "outraged."

A state Democratic campaign worker was arrested early Tuesday for allegedly stealing lawn signs for Republican freeholder candidates in Bergen County. David M. Gins, 27, of Washington, D.C., told police he was putting up signs for Menendez, but police saw him remove a sign and found a handful of others in the car he was riding in, according to the Record newspaper.

"It's outrageous that Bob Menendez cares more about the whereabouts of political lawn signs for freeholder candidates than he does creating jobs for New Jerseyans," Fay said.

The Menendez campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

Both candidates have focused on their biographies in television ads and largely lobbed only generic attacks at their opponent.

Kyrillos has pitched himself as "a different kind of Republican" in an ad that featured his wife, Susan. He has focused on jobs and promoted his work with Christie, a close friend. Kyrillos was chairman of Christie's gubernatorial campaign in 2009, but their relationship began long before that. Christie introduced Kyrillos to the woman he married.

Menendez, in one of his television spots, reminds viewers of his working-class roots; he grew up in a tenement in Union City.

Menendez also has talked up federal money he helped to secure for state biotech, clean energy, and transit projects.

Kyrillos has offered sparer details about his work in state government in his television ads. But Kyrillos supported implementing the New Jersey School Report Card and has voiced support for school vouchers. He has voted against raising income tax rates for millionaires and voted against legalizing same-sex marriage.

Kyrillos describes himself as a moderate Republican. He refused to sign Grover Norquist's antitax pledge, which forbids signers from increasing taxes. Raising revenue must be part of the plan to lower the country's debt, Kyrillos said, but he has not identified a fee or tax increase he would specifically support.

Menendez said he would support eliminating the Bush-era income tax cuts for the highest earners to help pay down the country's debt.

Both men have been party leaders. Kyrillos was chairman of the state Republican Committee from 2001 to 2004, and Menendez was chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee from 2009 until 2011.

Menendez had been a congressman for 12 years when Jon S. Corzine, who began his term as governor in January 2006, appointed him to fulfill the remainder of his U.S. Senate term. Menendez won reelection later that year.

Menendez, like Kyrillos, is not known as a firebrand.

"Menendez is really a dogged policy wonk and has really made a name for himself . . . with issues that have been very important to some of the demographic groups in New Jersey," said Harrison, the Montclair State professor.

As a Hispanic who led the Senate Democrats' campaign committee, Menendez also wields more influence than other low-seniority senators might.

"In terms of being one of the very few Hispanic U.S. senators, in some ways that gives him enormous cache for other senators who rely on him," she said. "He has been viewed as a go-to guy for some senators in Florida, in Texas, in California, or even House members who really need a connection with the Hispanic or Latino voters."


Contact Joelle Farrell

at 856-779-3237 or jfarrell@phillynews.com or on Twitter at @joellefarrell.

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