Wearing jeans, an open-collared shirt, and a superfluous windbreaker, U.S. Senate challenger Joe Kyrillos sat at a folding table in his second-floor campaign office in Middletown and spoke to 1,700 people.
Politicians around the nation are trying new ways of reaching voters. Many, especially underdogs like Kyrillos, have turned to teleconferencing. As a state senator, Republican Kyrillos has used the approach several times in his Monmouth County district.
But last night, as he watched names pop up on his laptop and asked for their questions, the Kyrillos campaign was trying for a much bigger haul of listeners and votes. Automated calls soliciting participants were going out to 69,000 households in Bergen County, according to Chapin Fay, Kyrillos’ campaign manager.
While the quiet setting lacked the interactive juice of a live town meeting, Kyrillos cited a practical advantage.
“Wherever I go, I’m not going to find a room where I can talk to 2,000 people at once,” he said.
Dialing for Dollars
Kyrillos faces incumbent Robert Menendez (D-NJ), who has the advantages of office, name recognition and money. In filings with the Federal Election Commission at the end of June, the Menendez campaign reported $10.2 million in net receipts while Kyrillos brought in $3.1 million.
While some hardcore conservative Republicans elsewhere in the country are awash in cash from special-interest political action committees, Kyrillos’ more low-key approach is not entirely in step with modern Republican doctrine.
Answering a wide range of questions from the relative handful of callers who made it onto the air, Kyrillos repeated some Republican boilerplate, but repeatedly described himself as a moderate willing to work with all sides.
The calls were targeted to households of Republican and unaffiliated voters, according to Fay. A few made their ideologies obvious, like the doctor from Englewood who introduced himself as a “very, very big fan” of Kyrillos’ close friend Gov. Chris Christie. Gene from Mahwah began by accusing President Barack Obama of not supporting Israel.
Those questions enabled Kyrillos to relax and launch into friendly
agreement. But others required him to be more focused, especially those who complained about New Jersey’s struggling economy.
“We haven’t seen the unemployment rate come down the way we want it to,” Kyrillos acknowledged, but sought to deflect criticism of the Governor. “It’s nothing a stronger national economy wouldn’t cure … we are not an island.”
But Frank, from Midland Park, asked why so many politicians are trying to “cut, cut, cut” Medicare and Social Security. “I’m retired, I’m on Medicare and I think it works pretty good,” the caller said.
Kyrillos reiterated that he does not want to cut benefits for current retirees or those nearing that age because “they have paid into the system.” But he suggested that people his age, 52, “are of the cusp of where we’re going to have to change.”
It has become an article of faith among much of the Republican party and many Wall Street Democrats that both social programs should be chopped back or privatized, although they are very different.
While Medicare is the largest single government program, Social Security is funded by a payroll tax and does not contribute to the national debt. But a growing retired population will inhibit its ability to pay full benefits without technical changes.
Various studies have suggested recalculating the way benefits rise with inflation, or extending the tax, capped at $106,800, to include higher salaries. Without such minor tinkering, the Social Security trustees estimate that the program will only be able to pay out about 75 percent of benefits after 2033.
Raising the Retirement Age
Kyrillos opted for a third choice, saying, “We are going to have to raise the retirement age” from 65. He added that some people would prefer working longer.
Asked later why he chose the option most likely to alarm some voters, Kyrillos noted he already has outlined such measures on his campaign website But he added he is “open to anything that works. It’s a math problem that we have to solve.”
The outreach event followed bad news for Kyrillos in the latest report from Fairleigh Dickinson University’s PublicMind Poll. It showed Menendez leading 49 percent to 33 percent among all voters, and 50-36 percent among likely voters.
Polls have shown Menendez leading steadily throughout the year, but generally with smaller margins and with support from less than half of likely voters. In recent days, Menendez has moved to shore up backing among Hispanic voters, who were lukewarm toward him in the FDU poll.
But Kyrillos discounted the margins, saying political polls have been consistently wrong and the campaign’s own projections show a closer race.
“I know I’m behind,” he said. “I have less name recognition, and in the New Jersey context, there’s a generic advantage for a Democrat.”
But as a mainstay in Trenton since winning election to the state Assembly in 1987, Kyrillos said, “I know I have work to do.”
While the teleconference largely went well from the technical side, and suited Kyrillos’ radio-quality voice, Fay said the campaign will have to evaluate more data before deciding on a repeat of the $4,000 investment.
Initial numbers showed the number of participants was a little under 2,000 at any given time, but the campaign was awaiting figures on how many households participated at any time, and for how long.