On a tense night for candidates around the country, incumbent U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) cruised to re-election Tuesday over veteran state Sen. Joe Kyrillos (R-Monmouth), whose challenge never caught fire. With most precincts reporting, vote totals showed Menendez leading by a 59 percent to 40 percent margin.
The low-key opponents were overshadowed by an acrimonious presidential race and a devastating storm that blew away much of their final week of campaigning. But what Menendez call an "extraordinary victory" validated polls that showed him with a larger and growing margin throughout the fall.
The well-financed incumbent chose an early theme -- "Fighting back for the middle class" -- and stuck to it throughout the campaign, including his victory speech to an enthusiastic crowd at the Heldrich Hotel in New Brunswick. But he turned first to an even more dramatic event.
"Let's first celebrate our greatest victory, and that is that New Jerseyans have survived an unprecedented storm," Menendez said, asking his supporters to remember families who have lost loved ones or are still struggling with damaged or destroyed homes or still coping with the loss of electrical power. "We will recover, we will rebuild, and the Garden State will blossom again."
Striking a common Democratic theme, Menendez said the response to the storm shows "a good, efficient and well-run government can level the playing field."
He praised Kyrillos' effort and extended good wishes, adding that his own campaign "gave you someone to vote for instead of someone to vote against."
Pointing to his support for health care, education and other programs benefitting the middle class, Menendez said, "I see a rising sun for America, not a setting sun."
Like other recent events, even the election night festivities were hastily re-arranged because of the storm. Menendez shifted to the Heldrich from the nearby East Brunswick Hilton. Kyrillos moved from the Renaissance in Woodbridge to Nanina’s in the Park in Belleville.
But there was a difference in the tone of the two gatherings.
"We've had a fantastic night here in New Jersey," Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex), the state Democratic chairman, crowed to a crowd that began the evening nervously but grew increasingly energetic.
"How does it feel to be winners?" Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) asked the party loyalists, whose numbers swelled through the night as results rolled in from around the state and nation.
Many were glued to CNN, but Lautenberg was just one of a steady stream of diversions from prominent Democrats arriving to work the room. Menendez "has opened doors for many of us in this state," said U.S. Rep Albio Sires (D-13th).
With Obama pushing to revive his "grand bargain," a package of deep spending cuts and a lesser amount of additional taxes to reduce the debt, some Democrats already want to put a better deal on the table.
While the idea of a bipartisan deal is sound, "the bargain can't be on the backs of the middle class and working people," Menendez said.
The president now has more leverage to propose a plan balanced between spending cuts and new revenues, he said.
And Democrats demonstrated they have no intention of conceding Bruce Springsteen to Republicans, despite Gov. Chris Christie's enthusiasm for the rocker. "Born to Run" blasted from the speakers as Menendez spoke to reporters.
At the Kyrillos gathering, Fox News was on the big projector TV screen, but not with the desired report. But even as the network called the race for Menendez before 9 p.m., no one in the white Italianate ballroom seemed to notice. Instead, everybody was too busy watching the state by state Romney-Obama numbers scroll by or discussing Christie's performance and round-the-clock media coverage during the storm.
Kyrillos' campaign manager Chapin Fay came down at 9:12 p.m. and insisted, "The night is still young. Only 10 percent of the vote has come in. Zero in from Ocean, zero from Bergen and Burlington. Let's wait for our counties to come in."
In his concession speech later, Kyrillos said Hurricane Sandy had blown away his plans for a closing push in some of those areas.
"We had the storm of the century, and that made things a little harder, not just for the people of New Jersey, but for our campaign as well," he said. "A lot of our supporters in Ocean and Monmouth counties left, and for good reason."
Larry Weitzner of Jamestown Associates, Kyrillos' media consultant, acknowledged that it's difficult for a Republican to win a U.S. Senate race in a “blue” state like New Jersey in the current political climate.
"We have a very polarized electorate," Weitzner said. "It's the blue team versus the red team, and voters go down the lineup from the catcher to the pitcher."
But Weitzner and Chapin Fay, Kyrillos' campaign manager, also blamed Sandy for wiping out the final nine days of the campaign for the outspent challenger.
"Joe spent the week going around to shelters and meeting with emergency personnel," Fay said. "He would have been going around the state campaigning with Chris Christie."
In the flood of taped “robo-calls” that besieged voters in the days leading up to the vote, the last recorded messages from Kyrillos and Menendez were particularly telling. Both expressed sympathy for storm victims and confidence in the state’s ability to bounce back.
But Menendez then used the bulk of his message to drum up support for Ballot Question A, the $750 million bond issue for higher education.
Menendez, 58, remained in a comfort zone throughout the campaign. Although well-known in his district and Trenton, Kyrillos had limited success in raising his profile throughout the state.
With incumbency and a reasonable amount of name recognition, Menendez enjoyed an overwhelming edge in working capital. Having raised $15.6 million in the two-year election cycle, according to October filings with the Federal Election Commission, the incumbent almost quadrupled the fiscal results from Kyrillos’ briefer campaign.
Then there was the aftermath of Sandy, when Menendez was all over the airwaves, touring hard-hit Shore points with President Barack Obama and other notables, including his opponent’s close friend Gov. Chris Christie.
Menendez even had the resources for a last-minute “campaign” spot on Monday on YouTube, in which he devoted most of his time to explaining to residents displaced by the storm what arrangements had been made to help them vote.
From the start, Kyrillos portrayed himself as a moderate, pointing to his ability to work across the aisle in Trenton over the years, even with Democratic governors.
But as the leader of the state’s Republican Party during the past three years, Christie has spent most of his time as governor dealing directly with Democratic power brokers like state Sen. Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester). Republican legislators have simply fallen in line, out of the spotlight.
Then there were the issues.
Kyrillos spent a lot of time reassuring New Jersey voters that he was not one of those national Republicans who think rape is God’s will or that homosexuality is a choice. In an effective early TV ad, his wife Susan described him as “a different kind of Republican.”
During the campaign, though, Kyrillos’ sincere but sometimes halting attempts to explain those intra-party differences, such as the GOP stance on abortion, undercut his efforts to distinguish himself from Menendez.
After 20 years on Capitol Hill, including 13 years in the House of Representatives, Menendez is well-versed in legislative ins-and-outs and was well-prepared with detailed examples of votes that supported his descriptions of his views on the issues. After accepting three debates with Kyrillos, Menendez was little troubled during the events themselves.
Meanwhile, Kyrillos switched to a strategy of trying to tie the incumbent to unpopular former Gov. Jon Corzine, who had appointed Menendez as his replacement in the U.S. Senate. But aside from guilt by association, that advertising campaign failed to make a strong connection.
On the other hand, Menendez ran commercials focusing on his blue-collar roots and his support for schools and teachers.
He also benefitted from a clash with the Christie administration over the failure to spend $300 million in federal aid to prevent foreclosures.
For over a year, Menendez and Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) clashed with the New Jersey Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency over the cash piling up in its Homekeeper Program. Late last month, Richard Constable III, commissioner of community affairs, conceded the point, saying he had cleaned house and the program is now spending the federal money.
As chairman of the housing subcommittee of the Senate Banking Committee, Menendez also has been active on foreclosure issues in Washington, pushing for more protection for homeowners and other consumers. That is a particularly pregnant issue in New Jersey, which already has the second-highest foreclosure rate in the country even as state officials predict a wave of additional cases.
Menendez started out in local politics in Union City under charismatic Mayor William Musto, but they soon parted ways. In 1982, he lost to Musto the day after the mayor was sentenced to prison on racketeering charges.
In the next election, in 1986, Menendez won the mayoralty. He added an Assembly seat in 1987, then moved up to the state Senate.
But he didn't stay in Trenton long. After the redistricting that followed the 1990 U.S. Census created a majority Hispanic district, Menendez sought and won election in 1992 in the old 13th Congressional District.
After Corzine appointed him to the U.S. Senate in early 2006, Menendez won a full six-year term that November.
A commercial real estate broker, Kyrillos was elected to the Assembly in 1987. He moved up to the state Senate in 1991, and has remained there ever since. He lost a congressional race in 1992 to U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone (D-6th Dist.). He was chairman of Mitt Romney’s New Jersey 2008 campaign and Christie’s successful run for governor in 2009.
Mark Magyar contributed to this story.