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Hurricane wreaks havoc on Senate race ad campaigns

Hurricane Sandy altered the physical landscape -- and it also changed the political and media outlook for the closing days of New Jersey's campaign for U.S. Senate.

Incumbent Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and his Republican challenger, state Sen. Joe Kyrillos (R-Monmouth) both tried to avoid obvious politicking, canceling or postponing campaign events and advertising, while maintaning high profiles.

As with so much else in the campaign, that was easier for the incumbent Menendez. Just doing his job as a senator, Menendez was among the group of officials and polticians touring stricken Shore communities with President Barack Obama and Gov. Chris Christie, reassuring local residents and officials.

For Kyrillos, whose legislative district includes some hard-hit areas, the task was to call attention to his constituents' needs while maintaining some semblance of his underdog campaign's plan for a closing push. As of Wednesday afternoon, the Kyrillos campaign was scrambling to salvage what it could of a planned 21-county campaign tour and to revive a planned burst of pre-Election Day advertising.

Kyrillos' campaign said his focus was shifted to "a weeklong survey of Hurricane Sandy's devastation" while the Menendez campaign said the senator was "100 percent focused on New Jersey's needs in the aftermath of the storm."

Even before the devastating super-storm jumbled the picture, Menendez enjoyed the advantages of incumbency and financing.

Prime-time television viewers tuning in to “Dancing with the Stars,” “Revenge” or “Castle,” might see a familiar face -- Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ).

U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ)

The incumbent is not tripping the light fantastic, plotting harm or solving crime. But in the closing weeks of his re-election campaign, Menendez has begun spending the funds in his impressive war chest on some high-profile advertising buys, even in the expensive New York and Philadelphia markets, even while he holds a double-digit lead over GOP opponent Joe Kyrillos.

Menendez's 30-second spots, detailing his rise from a humble background, are covering the airwaves, including national news and interview programs as well as syndicated favorites like “Jeopardy” and “Wheel of Fortune.”

As Hurricane Sandy approached, Menendez started showing up on The Weather Channel, surrounded by smiling children as he cheerfully talked about his support for education.

New Jersey Sen. Joe Kyrillos (R-Monmouth)

Kyrillos, a Republican state senator from Monmouth County, also pops up in the pauses of the game shows, for 15 seconds at a time. But to catch a Kyrillos spot otherwise, it helps to like local news or to be up by 6 a.m. or after 11 p.m.

It was not supposed to play out like this. A Trenton veteran with a reputation for moderation and bipartisanship, Kyrillos is on paper a plausible challenger for New Jersey’s junior senator.

In early August, Jamestown Associates, the Princeton and Baton Rouge, La., political consulting firm that handles Kyrillos’ advertising, was feeling flush enough that the campaign signed for $611,300 in commercials on WPVI, the ABC outlet in Philadelphia., from Oct. 9 through Election Day. That was only about $60,000 less than the Menendez media team spent.

The largest buys were $55,500 for 15 spots on the 11 p.m. local news, $54,000 for 15 more on “Access Hollywood” and another 15 on the 6 p.m. local news for $51,000. The campaign also earmarked a total of $57,000 for news and “Good Morning America” in the 6 a.m. and 7 a.m. hours.

Their big buy came after a second quarter in which Kyrillos coasted past three little-known opponents in the Republican primary. For a campaign taking on an incumbent, Kyrillos’ finances looked more than respectable, according to filings with the Federal Election Commission. From April through June, Kyrillos took in $731,866 in net contributions, not far behind the $863,549 raised by Menendez.

But overall, while Kyrillos had raised more than $3 million and spent only about $1 million in the primary season, the incumbent’s total for the re-election cycle was already $14.3 million. And while Gov. Chris Christie expresses confidence in Kyrillos' chances, the polls all summer have not been encouraging, with some giving Menendez a more than 20-point advantage.

Securing the GOP nomination did not give Kyrillos a major funding surge. While donations ticked upward in the third quarter, they did not break $1 million. Through the end of September, his total was $4 million, with less than $1.7 million cash on hand, according to the FEC documents. In that same period, Menendez raised another $1.3 million, for a $15.6 million total. He still had in excess of $8.3 million in available cash, more than twice as much as Kyrillos’ cumulative fund-raising.

The finances of the Kyrillos campaign rest on a few pillars. Patriot Prosperity, the political action committee of casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson and Holmdel businessman Robert Harris, has contributed $360,000. Of that, $100,000 went in the third quarter to Target Enterprises of Los Angeles for ads.

The Morristown law firm of McElroy, Deutsch, Mulvaney and Carpenter dwarfs other individual contributors, at $180,000 from the firm along with donations from partners. Managing partner Ed Deutsch hosted a fundraiser for Kyrillos with Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney. Through the third quarter, the Bergen Anesthesia Group was second at $26,650.

By ZIP code, aside from Morristown, Kyrillos country is Rumson. Residents there contributed $179,785 through the third quarter. Red Bank accounted for $86,000 and Princeton for $81,400. Menendez, meanwhile, in the third quarter raised $103,000 from individual contributors in Princeton, $101,900 in Englewood Cliffs and $97,501 in Livingston.

After 13 years in the U.S. House of Representatives and seven in the Senate, Menendez has a much broader fund-raising reach. Like his Republican opponent, many contributions to Menendez come from lawyers. But they send him more dollars -- $1.6 million, compared to $368,795 for Kyrillos, according to www.opensecrets.org.

The Republican attracted a few contributors from such tony out-of-state precincts as Saratoga Springs and Southampton in New York, and San Diego. Like Menendez, Kyrillos also brought in some money from PAC and lobbyist addresses in Washington, D.C., and Alexandria, Va.

But while Kyrillos got $62,025 from all of Florida, Menendez pulled in $335,000 from Miami alone. Kyrillos took in $6,750 from Houston; Menendez received $137,735. Doctors, lawyers and pharmacists from McAllen, Texas, gave the Democrat even more -- $172,650.

Residents of the 10022 ZIP code, Manhattan’s Midtown East, gave Menendez $92,500. The10021 ZIP code, centered on 72nd Street and Third Avenue, kicked in $92,020.

While Kyrillos benefitted from the connection with Adelson, Menendez doubled that with money from two establishment Democratic PACs, Majority and Patriot Majority. He also brought in smaller amounts from other PACS, such as the pro-Israel NORPAC of Englewood Cliffs.

The two Democratic PACS, run by former aides to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), spent $282,500 last week alone for printing and outreach. During the election cycle, they have spent a total of $660,000 on behalf of Menendez. At $70,550, NORPAC ranked third among Menendez contributors, according to Open Secrets.

Bowing to the imbalance in resources, the Kyrillos campaign began delivering bad news to Philadelphia television stations in late September.

Those scheduled ads on WPVI were reduced twice. Although a new deal restored some, by late October the projected total was under $500,000.

At WTXF, a likely source of Republican votes as Philadelphia’s Fox affiliate, Kyrillos began September with a $208,000 buy. That included almost 400 spots, oriented toward news and features. The largest single piece was $21,300 for regular commercials in the 6 a.m. hour of “Good Day.”

By early October, those purchases had been scaled back twice, to $120,800 for 229 spots. The largest commitment was now $14,200 for spots in the 5 a.m. hour of “Good Day.”

For the closing weeks of the campaign, Kyrillos contracted for $371,600 worth of ads on WABC in New York, many in the popular evening hour of “Jeopardy” and “Wheel of Fortune.” The Republican contracted for $162,902 of time on WNBC, weighted toward the closing week and news shows.

But the Menendez advertising team, Message and Media of New Brunswick, already had earmarked $1.3 million for time on WABC, and $724,925 for NBC. The Democratic campaign bought spots for broadcasts of the vice presidential debate, “Chicago Fire,” the top-ranked primetime football game between the Baltimore Ravens and New England Patriots, and, for $25,000, “The Voice.”

During three decades reporting in New Jersey, Joe Tyrrell has covered everything from Avon to Zarephath, with a particular emphasis on politics and government, the environment and agriculture. He founded the New Jersey Foundation for Open Government, which unites civic groups, citizens and journalists to promote transparency and ethics.

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