The race for the Republican U.S. senate nomination has picked up a little heat, with the official entry of Tea Party member Bader Qarmout into the contest.
Qarmout kicked off his candidacy at a rally with about 80 supporters at Homer's Restaurant in Sparta. In his remarks, he said his conservative views are what will be needed to beat Democratic incumbent Sen. Robert Menendez.
But before Qarmout gets a chance at Menendez, he's got to go through state Sen. Joseph Kyrillos (R-Monmouth). The 24-year veteran and former head of the state GOP picked up the endorsement of Gov. Chris Christie last week, and pundits do not expect him to have any trouble winning the nomination in June.
But that's not stopping Qarmout, who acknowledged that he is not the party anointed and said he is running a grassroots effort.
"The establishment has their man and that is not me," said Qarmout, who lives with his wife and four children in rural Green Township. "This is not going to be easy, but together we can do it."
While he targeted Menendez, who entered the U.S. Senate in January 2006, Qarmout said Kyrillos is an "entrenched establishment" politician who cannot beat Menendez in November.
"[Kyrillos] is part of New Jersey's problem," Qarmout said. "He cannot possibly be part of Washington's solution."
Chapin Fay, a spokesman for Kyrillos, did not engage the opponent, saying instead, "Joe Kyrillos is running for Senate to bring the kind of change to Washington that Gov. Christie and his allies are bringing to New Jersey."
RoseAnn Salanitri, president of the New Jersey TEA Party Caucus and Qarmout's campaign manager, said the campaign does not expect to raise the millions of dollars that Menendez and Kyrillos are expected to take in. Qarmout will travel the state, using the tea party network and visiting home and neighborhood gatherings, to meet voters and gather support.
"We will do it another way," said Salanitri, whose effort to recall Menendez was rejected by the state Supreme Court. "We need to get him [Qarmout] in front of as many people as possible."
Exposure is not a problem for Kyrillos, and that makes him by far the front runner in the race, said Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University.
"It's virtually impossible to win an election in New Jersey without statewide name recognition," said Dworkin. "Nobody knows who he [Qarmout] is."
Dworkin does not discount the power of the tea party movement in the state. Anna Little was able to defeat the GOP standard-bearer for the nomination in the 6th Congressional District two years ago. Similarly, Hank Lyon upset a sitting Morris County freeholder in last year's primary -- although a judge later overturned the decision. But those kinds of wins are easier to pull off in local or regional races.
"The political geography of New Jersey requires statewide a candidate to have significant financial resources," Dworkin said.
Qarmout's campaign was seeking donations of any size, as well as ballot signatures, at yesterday's event. Backers left with lawn signs proclaiming his slogan: "Faith. Family. Country."
"That's who I am," said Qarmout, who was born in Lebanon the eighth of nine children, and came to the United States with his parents and siblings in the mid-1970s. "Our rights are God-given, not government-given."
Qarmout, 43, is an adjunct professor of psychology and sociology at County College of Morris. He has a master's degree in social work from Rutgers University. The new candidate ran the family business until 2009, when he sold it to his brother. The family owns and operates several convenience stores and owns and manages commercial and residential real estate.
Qarmout said his main goals are to work to repeal President Obama's healthcare reform program and enact an immigration reform plan that includes more secure borders and fines of more than $10,000 on adults here illegally. He also supports 12-year federal term limits.
The Tea Party member also backs a reduction in corporate tax rates and the construction of the controversial Keystone XL Pipeline Project from Canada to Texas, both of which would create jobs, he said.
Introducing Qarmout yesterday was his son, George, 11, who called his father "my hero." Qarmout said he decided to run to make the nation better for his children and future generations. He asked supporters for any help they can give, but most especially prayers, over the next few months and to make sure they vote in the primary.
"Conservative candidates cannot win unless conservatives vote for them," Qarmout said. "We need to take America back in 2012."