Menendez wins reelection to Senate; opponent blames his loss partly on Sandy

Sen. Bob Menendez greets Charlene Ayres-Britt at Delaware Valley Baptist Church in Willingboro.
Sen. Bob Menendez greets Charlene Ayres-Britt at Delaware Valley Baptist Church in Willingboro. (APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: November 08, 2012

U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez was elected to a second term Tuesday, trouncing longtime Republican State Sen. Joseph Kyrillos.

Kyrillos, 52, of Middletown, Monmouth County, blamed his loss partly on Hurricane Sandy. Many of his backers in GOP strongholds in Monmouth and Ocean Counties were forced to flee when the storm hit.

"We could've used that support tonight," he said at a postelection event in Belleville, N.J. "We had the storm of the century, and that made things a little harder."

In his victory speech, Menendez, 58, said he looked forward to working with Kyrillos to aid those affected by Sandy.

Menendez even thanked those who voted against him, many of whom he said went to the polls despite difficult circumstances.

He called on supporters to celebrate "a victory over everything that Sandy could hurl at us."

The Hudson County resident - who entered politics when he was barely out of his teens - was appointed to the Senate in 2006 to finish the six-year term of Jon S. Corzine, who had been elected governor. Voters returned Menendez to the Senate that November after a bitter battle with Republican State Sen. Thomas H. Kean Jr.

This year's race was less acrimonious, with the candidates running mostly positive biographical ads. The tone grew sharper during three debates, and Kyrillos ran an attack ad in the final weeks that attempted to tie Menendez to the country's economic troubles.

Menendez - who raised more than $11.4 million in campaign contributions compared to Kyrillos' $4.6 million - never mentioned his opponent in his many ads on network television.

With President Obama at the top of the ticket, Menendez had an advantage in a state where no Republican has been elected to the U.S. Senate since 1972.

Kyrillos pitched himself as a moderate and hoped to capitalize on his decades-old relationship with Republican Gov. Christie.

Christie, who introduced Kyrillos to the woman he married, campaigned a few times for his friend, but not until recent weeks.

Kyrillos was encouraged earlier this year when polls showed Menendez's approval rate below 50 percent, but he never really gained ground. Despite 24 years in the Legislature and several high-profile events with Christie in recent weeks, he struggled to attain name recognition beyond his home district.

Menendez led Kyrillos in every poll conducted, and that lead widened to 18 points by late October, according to the Inquirer New Jersey Poll. That margin was consistent among several polls.

Menendez, who is of Cuban descent, grew up in Union City and was elected to the school board at age 20. He worked for Mayor William Musto but eventually quit and testified against his former boss in a corruption trial.

Menendez was elected mayor in 1986 and the next year became the first Latino member of the Assembly. He was elected to the state Senate in 1991, where he also was the first Latino member.

He was elected to Congress in 1992 and had served six terms when Corzine appointed him to fill out his Senate term.

Despite his relative junior status, Menendez has had his name on several major Senate bills, including the most recent economic sanctions on Iran. He was chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee from 2009 until 2011.

At the top of Menendez's agenda for his second six-year term is helping to implement Obama's health-care overhaul. He also has said he would support additional tax breaks for the middle class and the poor, and help bring more high-tech and clean-energy jobs to New Jersey.

Contact Joelle Farrell at 856-779-3237 or or on Twitter at @joellefarrell.

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