Menendez’s problems and his associations with the state’s Democratic machine are not a new story. For years, as National Review Online reported in 2006, the senator has been connected to federal corruption probes, only to be cleared. His former confidant, Donald Scarinci, was implicated in a pay-to-play scandal. The connection of federal dollars to his rental properties has also raised eyebrows.
Four years ago, Senator Frank Lautenberg won reelection on Obama’s coattails, beating former Republican congressman Dick Zimmer by double digits. Menendez beat his 2006 challenger, state senator Tom Kean Jr., by a similar margin. Kyrillos’s district, near Monmouth County and Ocean County, is a GOP stronghold, as is the northwest corner of the state: Morris, Sussex, Warren, and Hunterdon Counties.
Menendez’s base is the liberal New York City suburbs, and Kyrillos will need to turn out voters beyond greater Middletown to beat him. There are real pick-up opportunities in places where McCain drew strong support in 2008, such as in the southwest corner of the state, in Gloucester and Salem Counties, which are partly suburbs of Philadelphia. In the central part of the state, Somerset County is another red-tinged region.
Kyrillos will not be able to resurrect Christie’s 2009 coalition, due to the increase of likely Democratic voters in a presidential-election year. But if he can do well in Republican areas, the race could be tight. One of the key factors in Christie’s victory was his ability to drive his numbers above 60 percent in Ocean, Monmouth, and Morris Counties.
Kyrillos supports abortion rights, but during his time in the legislature, he has worked closely with pro-life leaders on parental notification, parental consent, and preventing third-trimester abortions. A Presbyterian, he also has deep ties to social conservatives, including Don Hodel, Ronald Reagan’s interior secretary, who later ran the Christian Coalition.
The son of a Lebanese physician, Kyrillos graduated from Hobart College in 1982, then went on to earn a master’s degree in communications from Boston University. During this period, he got to know Ron Kaufman, then a senior Reagan-Bush adviser and a current Romney adviser. Kaufman hired him to work on Reagan’s reelection, and Kyrillos aided Lee Atwater and Ed Rollins throughout the 1984 campaign. “I knocked on doors, I did everything,” he chuckles.
During Reagan’s second term, Kyrillos traveled the country with Hodel, helping him with political strategy. He eventually returned home to run for office and won a seat in the general assembly in 1988. Three years later, at age 31, he won a state-senate race in Monmouth County. Party leaders soon urged him to challenge Representative Frank Pallone.
Kyrillos’s 1992 House race became one of the must-win contests of the cycle. It drew national press attention as well as a visit from President George H. W. Bush, who stumped for his former campaign staffer. Despite the effort, Kyrillos lost to Pallone, a well-financed Democrat. But not all was lost: During the campaign, a friendly young Republican lawyer named Chris Christie introduced him to his future wife, Susan.
After losing his House race and getting married in 1995, Kyrillos dove into his state-senate work and turned down offers to run for higher office. He started to build his own business career, focusing on commercial real estate. He is currently a senior managing director at Colliers International and works at a private investment firm. (New Jersey lawmakers are allowed to work for private companies.)
“If my friend Mitt Romney can keep things close here, and I know he will, I can win this race,” Kyrillos tells me. He glances around the diner, which has started to bustle with early-bird habitués. “I take pride in how I can walk into any room and connect with people, regardless of party affiliation. Throughout my career, I’ve been able to attract Reagan Democrats and nontraditional voters. I’ll do it again.”
In the coming months, Christie will hit the trail with Kyrillos as the race unfolds, as will Romney. In a Democratic state, Kyrillos says, it’s critical to have all wings of the Republican party working together.
“Bob Menendez’s fading poll numbers are rooted in the state’s generic political disposition, which has tended to be Democrat,” he says. “If I can run hard in Republican areas and pick up support from voters who are frustrated with the growing debt and the economy, we can do it.”
“Usually, in a blue state against a powerful incumbent, Republicans run as sacrificial lambs,” Kyrillos says. “Well, that’s not my style.”
— Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.