Middletown, N.J. — It takes Joe Kyrillos, a 52-year-old state senator, 15 minutes to reach his table at the New Monmouth Diner. It’s late in the afternoon and the crowd has thinned, but two silver-haired grandfathers want a word, and a young mother with a child at her knee has a question. Waitresses hoisting heavy trays of burgers and Cokes brush past Kyrillos as he moves from booth to booth, talking politics.
Kyrillos is running for the U.S. Senate against Senator Bob Menendez, the Garden State’s junior senator and the head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. As a Republican in a deep-blue state, Kyrillos faces many challenges. Menendez is better financed, he’s better known, and he will benefit from the Obama campaign, which was able to sweep New Jersey four years ago.
But Kyrillos, an even-tempered fellow, is confident that he can defeat Menendez and give New Jersey its first elected Republican senator since Clifford Case left office in 1979. The latest polls hint at Menendez’s soft statewide support. “I know I’m the underdog and I have a lot of work to do,” Kyrillos says as he reads the diner’s large, laminated menu. “But I’m running against a very weak incumbent.”
A Fairleigh Dickinson poll released in May shows Menendez leading Kyrillos by nine points, 42 percent to 33 percent — hardly a position of strength for an established senator. In the same poll, Menendez loses by seven points, 37 percent to 30 percent, against “someone else.” Kyrillos, for his part, is unknown by 68 percent of voters. Once they get to know him, he predicts, he will rise.
According to recent federal election reports, Menendez currently has $9 million on hand, while Kyrillos has approximately $1 million. To close the gap as the race heats up, Kyrillos will need to tap into the national fundraising networks of both Mitt Romney and Governor Chris Christie. Luckily for Kyrillos, there is no one in New Jersey politics who is better connected to both men.
At the state level, Kyrillos chaired Romney’s presidential campaign from 2007 to 2008, a time when most state politicos were supporting former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani for the nomination. He has remained close with Romney since then, working as a behind-the-scenes booster in Trenton. An appreciative Romney hosted a big-dollar fundraiser for Kyrillos in late April.
Christie considers Kyrillos, a former state-party chair, his right-hand man in the state legislature. Kyrillos chaired Christie’s 2009 gubernatorial campaign and frequently moonlighted as a Christie surrogate and senior adviser. “No one gave us a chance,” Kyrillos says. “But Chris’s race proved that a Republican can win in New Jersey, even when you’re outspent.”
Soon after, during Christie’s rough-and-tumble budget fights with Democrats in 2010 and 2011, Kyrillos became one of Christie’s top allies in the capitol. Bringing the fiscally conservative Christie ethos to the Beltway will be the focus of Kyrillos’s campaign. “I won’t be afraid to cast tough votes and make the tough decisions,” he says. “We’ve got to find a way to fix the country.”
“It’s not an ideological or political problem that we have,” Kyrillos says. “It’s a math problem.” He argues that “practical” conservatism can win in New Jersey this year. “We need an intellectually honest budget,” he adds, noting that he generally supports the GOP budget authored by Representative Paul Ryan. “If we do nothing, Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid won’t be there for the people who need them.”