By John Burton
The lineup is set for the Aug. 13 special primary to replace the late U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg with four high-profile Democrats in the running. The list is leaner on the Republican side. It’s a race that one Two-River state senator opted to sit out.
State Sen. Joseph M. Kyrillos, Middletown, a more than two-decade Republican veteran of the Senate and longtime party standard-bearer, was on just about everyone’s short list of either being chosen by Republican Gov. Chris Christie to hold the U.S. Senate seat for the interim, and/or to seek the office for the remaining 13 months of Lautenberg’s term.
The only Monmouth County candidate for the seat is U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., Long Branch, a 25-year Democratic veteran of the House who represents the 6th District.
Kyrillos, 53, has opted out of running and this week discussed his decision with The Two River Times™.
“I just ran my race and had an election about seven months ago,” Kyrillos said of being his party’s unsuccessful candidate against Sen. Robert Menendez, D-NJ. “It was great, I enjoyed every minute of it,” he said while acknowledging he ran into some insurmountable obstacles, which really made his 2012 run – always a long shot – that much more arduous.
While deciding whether to run in 2011, he said, he “assumed three things. I assumed the national election would be a close one,” with Mitt Romney’s run for president offering some coattails. That however, turned out to not be the case with President Barack Obama winning the state by an even larger margin than he did in 2008.
Another factor was Kyrillos’ hope that some of the allegations that had come out post-2012 election contending Menendez had ethical lapses, would have made their way into the headlines prior to voters going to the polls, he said.
Third, and most notably – at least for Monmouth and Ocean counties, the home of Kyrillos’ base of support – was Super Storm Sandy striking so close to the general election. “It killed us in our base,” he said.
“Mostly,” he said, “it’s a very tough state,” to run for statewide office under the Republican banner, as the electorate continues to skew blue, returning Democrats to those offices.
New Jersey voters haven’t sent a Republican to the Senate since Clifford P. Case.
“I’m really mindful of the difficulty of a Republican running in New Jersey in federal (election) years – especially in presidential years,” he said.
With the rapidly approaching primary and looming special election on Wednesday, Oct. 16 – less than three weeks before the general election – the tightly compressed race would have been daunting to mount for anyone, Kyrillos said.
Since he ran last year, that would have meant running for the statewide office again less than a year later and during a two-month period, and again in 2014 for a full six-year term; an exhausting – and expensive – prospect, even for a veteran pol.
Paul Tsongas, the late senator from Massachusetts and presidential candidate, said money is the mother’s milk of American politics. It is what nurtures and nourishes political campaigns.
Kyrillos said he raised about $5.5 million for his Senate run last year. It was a pretty good amount for a challenger but not nearly enough for candidates who have to have to buy advertising time in the expensive New York and Philadelphia markets to get their message out to Garden State voters, Kyrillos said.
“You really need around 10 to 20 (million dollars)” to run an effective, winning Senate campaign, he said.
Last year there were 33 Senate seats, 17 gubernatorial races, plus the full 435-member House with the presidency topping the ticket. “That’s a lot of competition for available dollars,” he said.
Democrats voting in the Aug. 13 primary, will choose from four candidates: Pallone, against whom Kyrillos had run unsuccessfully in 1992; Rep. Rush Holt, D-12th, who has represented his district for 15 years; state Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver, who represents Essex County; and Newark Mayor Cory Booker.
Republicans will choose from two candidates in the primary: Steve Lonegan, former mayor of the Bergen County community of Bogota, who unsuccessfully sought the GOP nomination in 2005 and 2009; Dr. Alieta Eck, a Piscataway physician.
Christie last week tapped Attorney General Jeffrey Chiesa to service in the Senate until the special election. He was sworn in Monday, June 10.
With this roster, Kyrillos called Booker the “presumptive incumbent for all practical purposes,” saying the Newark mayor had marquee name value and fundraising ability and apparatus in place.
But it’s still early in the process. “This year will be even still more unpredictable,” because it’s an “off-off year election” Kyrillos said. “The turnout may be even smaller and it may be a surprise result.”
Having just fought back an unusual challenge for his Senate seat during the June 4 primary election, Kyrillos plans on campaigning for Christie – the two have a strong personal friendship that dates back to their college days – and for other candidates around the state.