Incumbent U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) is seeking a second full term, challenged by a veteran state legislator, state Sen. Joe Kyrillos (R-Monmouth).
But as the campaign wears on, Kyrillos increasingly has chosen to run against a different man: former Gov. Jon Corzine.
The South Jersey state legislator accustomed to easy victories in his Shore district is far behind Menendez in every poll and so is trying to link his opponent with New Jersey’s last governor, whose popularity plummeted as the recession worsened in 2008 and 2009..
At the same time, nine other contenders, ignored by the major parties and not even afforded the publicity of the three senatorial debates, are trying to insert themselves into the conversation in whatever way they can.
It is not proving easy for them, or for the much better funded Kyrillos, to gain voter support, with the Hudson County Democrat leading by double digits, and as much as 22 percent, in four separate polls this month.
Menendez chose his campaign theme early: “Fighting back for the middle class.”
With the advantages of incumbency and money – he had about $6.7 million more than Kyrillos as of Sept. 30 -- Menendez has been able to stick to that theme. His advertising paints a consistent picture of a man, from a blue-collar background and immigrant parents, who has stayed true to his roots.
Beyond his home base, Kyrillos introduced himself to voters around the state as a reformer and a close friend of Gov. Chris Christie, but also as that increasingly rare species: a Republican moderate.
At the same time, Kyrillos sought to capitalize on concerns over the nation’s economic woes. In a series of press releases, statements and debating points, Kyrillos blamed Menendez for everything from declining employment and to rising debt.
The limitations of that strategy became apparent during a radio debate on New Jersey 101.5 earlier this month, when Menendez countered by trying to tie Kyrillos to New Jersey’s lagging economic recovery.
As the two men talked over each other, moderator Eric Scott had a Candy Crowley moment, pointing out the obvious.
“It is disingenuous for either party to blame an individual legislator” for national or state economic ills, he said. Menendez “isn’t responsible for $3 trillion in debt,” Scott said.
So as Menendez continues to talk about middle-class tax cuts, middle-class jobs and middle-class health care, Kyrillos has increasingly questioned his mathematics, calling his opponent a practitioner of “Jon Corzine economics.”
Corzine, former chairman of the investment firm Goldman Sachs, was considered a financial whiz when he arrived in the U.S. Senate. After a single term as governor in trying economic times, the bloom was off the rose, and his subsequent losses back on Wall Street have turned him into a punchline.
Since Corzine appointed Menendez to replace him in the U.S. Senate, making the connection is no strain for Kyrillos. His campaign offered a commercial with an old clip of Vice President Joe Biden proclaiming,“I literally called up Jon Corzine and said, ‘Jon, what should we do?’”
In addition, Kyrillos has begun questioning Menendez’s ethics. He states that Menendez owned stock in Spanish Broadcasting Systems, which was one of his largest donors, and then tried unsuccessfully to block Univision’s takeover of SBS rival Hispanic Broadcasting Corp. Menendez responded that he lost money on the investment.
Neither man is a stranger to political allegations as they both have spent much of their adult lives in politics. Menendez began locally in Union City, then moved on to the state Legislature, the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate. After starting in the state Assembly, Kyrillos has been a fixture in the state Senate since 1991.
Both have also done stints steering the partisan team. Menendez was head of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee in 2008, and often identified as de facto leader of the powerful Hudson County party. Kyrillos is a former chairman of the Republican State Committee and head presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s 2008 campaign in New Jersey.
Menendez has been able to point to progress on matters affecting large numbers of constituents. For instance, he says he got $52 million in tax credits for 133 New Jersey biotech companies, and $500 million for hundreds of solar-energy projects.
Because of President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, “70,000 young people in New Jersey now have health care under their parents’ insurance” until they turn 26, and insurers cannot drop those with pre-existing conditions, he said.
Menendez also highlights his efforts to get $300 million in federal aid to help some New Jerseyans avoid losing their homes to foreclosure. In the state with the second highest rate of pending foreclosures, it is a doubly useful issue. He and fellow Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) have been been in a protracted battle to get the state to spend the money, which Christie recently acknowledged his administration should do.
On a key social issue, same-sex marriage, Menendez acknowledges he has changed position. As a congressman in the 1990s, “I looked at it as a religious issue,” he said. But through conversations with constituents, he said he has “evolved” to the point where “I have come to consider that this is a civil-rights issue.”
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