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Christie pal Kyrillos is within striking distance of Menendez.

New Jersey state senator Joe Kyrillos

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Robert Costa

Kyrillos has been endorsed by Christie, who helped his friend rake in more than $600,000 at a March event. He must wait, however, until primary day, June 5, to become the party’s official nominee. He faces a trio of unknown conservative activists in the primary: Bader Qarmout, Rudy Rullo, and David Brown. But thanks to his Christie ties and tea-party outreach, Kyrillos has largely been able to coast.

In mid-April, Kyrillos gave a rousing speech at a well-attended tea-party rally in Philadelphia. He was warmly introduced there by tea-party favorite Anna Little, who earlier this year briefly entered the Senate race. “In New Jersey, we stopped borrowing, we cut spending, and we didn’t raise taxes,” Kyrillos told the cheering crowd. “It’s not complicated, but Barack Obama and my opponent do not get it.”

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A few weeks later, Kyrillos won the endorsement of that rally’s host, the Independence Hall Tea Party PAC. A handful of small tea-party organizations have endorsed his opponents. According to Trenton insiders, though, Kyrillos should be able to win the nomination easily. He has most county chairmen on his side, and influential conservative forces such as the Morristown Tea Party also back him.

On the right, Kyrillos’s popularity is tethered to his association with Christie, his apparent electability, and his legislative record, which over the past two decades has included support for tax cuts, spending caps, and pension reforms. Kyrillos notes on his website that he has never supported a “broad-based tax increase.” His record is impressive, but it also shows that he’s made what some see as less-than-perfect decisions. PolitiFact notes, for instance, that in the late 1990s he voted for a tax hike on cigarettes, tax-code tinkering scorned by fiscal hawks.

The fact that his opponent is Menendez, though, may put such blemishes in a better light. Menendez supported both Obamacare and the stimulus, and this will probably subdue voters’ quibbles about Kyrillos’s fiscal record, says former New Jersey governor Tom Kean. “If he can raise enough money, he’ll be serious,” Kean says. “Menendez has been in Congress for 20 years, and [Kyrillos] is an unknown to many in the state. There’s a real opportunity here, but he has an uphill fight.”

So far, Kyrillos has spent much of the campaign hammering Menendez for his connection to former New Jersey governor Jon Corzine, whose investment firm, MF Global, lost billions. He has chided Menendez, who sits on the Senate Banking Committee, for “protecting” Corzine from scrutiny on Capitol Hill. Menendez’s call for better “system controls” is shameful, Kyrillos says, when the fault lies with Corzine.

Back in New Jersey, it’s the same story, Kyrillos says: Menendez has not done enough to snuff out corruption. Joseph Bigica, Menendez’s top fundraiser, pled guilty earlier this month to funneling $100,000 in illegal donations to Menendez’s campaign. Menendez needs to explain the relationship, Kyrillos argues, because voters deserve to know more.

“People have seen here at the state level that they need something different to change things for the better for New Jersey,” Kyrillos says. “Outside the senator’s base in Hudson and Essex Counties, he hasn’t made the sale. In Washington, he is not known for any significant achievements. He hasn’t leveraged his abilities to produce, to be a force for good.”



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