Bob Menendez trounced veteran Republican state legislator Joe
Kyrillos on Tuesday to win a second full term, extending New
Jersey's streak of electing Democrats to the U.S. Senate now to 40
The win puts Menendez, as a member of the powerful Senate Finance Committee who has earned the trust of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, in position to play a role in major policy fights ahead over taxes and Medicare.
The 58-year-old North Bergen resident strongly supported President Obama's health insurance overhaul, and vowed never to support a voucher-like system for Medicare. He also wants tax cuts to expire for people in the top two brackets making more than $200,000.
Final results may not be known for the days, when paper and electronic ballots cast by people victims of Hurricane Sandy are counted. But with 68 percent of the vote in, Menendez led 58 percent to 40 percent.
"I couldn't be more grateful for this extraordinary victory," Menendez told cheering supporters in New Brunswick shortly after 10:30 p.m. "We are outperforming in every county what we intended to do."
Kyrillos a 52-year-old state senator from Middletown, said he raised nearly $5 million, but it wasn't enough.
"It's made me a bigger fan of campaign finance reform," he said at a banquet hall in Belleville.
He also lamented the media "didn't pay nearly enough attention to our efforts. Perhaps they didn't understand what our campaign was all about."
Menendez started his reelection campaign with a lead in statewide polls but with weak public approval, showing he could be vulnerable, especially in a state that threw out a Democratic governor in 2009 and now has one of the nation's Republican powerhouses running Trenton.
But the last public polls taken before Hurricane Sandy showed Menendez had increased both his lead and public approval rating, in part because he ran exclusively positive and biographical commercials on television.
Kyrillos, 52, was able to increase the share of voters who recognized his name only to 40 percent, from 25 percent. Kyrillos said Governor Christie, a close friend, never turned down a request for help even when Christie's schedule was jammed with out-of-state fundraisers and campaign rallies for Mitt Romney and other candidates. But Kyrillos also lamented, half-jokingly, that he wished the governor was not such a "rock star," a sign the candidate had hoped Christie could help raise Kyrillos' own visibility.
"Kyrillos was banking on the fact most people don't love Bob Menendez, but he was discounting the fact that most people don't hate Bob Menendez," said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute.
"Most people have no opinion of Bob Menendez. But he's the incumbent, and the challenger had shown no reason why the incumbent should be fired, so they voted for Bob Menendez," Murray said.
Tom Wilson, a former Republican State Committee chairman now working as a lobbyist, said Kyrillos also battled a perennial attitude among New Jersey voters that the Senate was distant and unconnected from their everyday lives.
"New Jersey voters look at the U.S. Senate race as being less important than our mayor's race, no matter how little power the mayor may have," Wilson said.
Republicans' chances of defeating Menendez were hobbled, Wilson said, by the absence of a candidate already well known to the public.
"Had he [Kyrillos] won Powerball and been able to bring $40 million to the table to create interest and issues, it might have been different," Wilson said. "But a good number of people always thought Joe would do his best to try to win and also do his best to make a good run around the track, meet folks, get his name identification up, and put himself in good position to take a run, perhaps, in 2014."
Fundraising was also an issue, especially since Menendez's career has been propelled by his prowess in raising large sums.
Through Oct. 17, Menendez had raised $11.9 million, and had $5.6 million remaining for the final three weeks. By comparison, Kyrillos had $1.7 million on Sept. 30 after raising $4.7 million. His disclosure report for the first half of October, due Oct. 25, had not been filed in Washington by Friday.
Issues in the race generally tracked the presidential campaign, but Kyrillos also argued he was more open to compromise than some of his fellow Republicans in Washington.
Like Romney, whose New Jersey presidential campaign he chaired in 2008, Kyrillos argued the primary reason to defeat Menendez and President Obama was that the policies they supported did not produce economic recovery quickly enough, and added to federal debt.
He said economic growth would come from cutting spending and regulations, but he broke with many in his party by saying he was open to a deficit-trimming deal that would include new revenues -- even while he also advocated bigger tax cuts.
The math would work, he said, if loopholes in the tax code were closed. But he never said which loopholes, spending programs or regulations he would eliminate.
Menendez countered with the same argument Obama was delivering: Policies he'd supported brought the country back from the brink of collapse; full recovery needed more time and less Republican obstruction; and the policies Kyrillos supported would take the country backward.
Menendez also was vague on key details. He said he believed Congress would reach a deal in its lame-duck session to prevent the so-called fiscal cliff, the tax increases and across-the-board spending cuts due to trigger on Jan. 1. But beyond supporting higher tax rates on those making more than $200,000 and ending tax subsidies for oil companies, Menendez never described what spending cuts, changes to Medicare and Social Security, and tax increases he would agree to in order to avoid the cliff.
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