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."
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."
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."
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."