CHICAGO — The stage is set for a fierce battle over Barack Obama’s old Senate seat.
Rep. Mark Kirk, a moderate Republican, won Illinois’s primary Tuesday in the Senate race. He is hoping to reenact Scott Brown’s victory in Massachusetts and take the seat from Democrats in November.
His opponent is Alexi Giannoulias, the Illinois treasurer and a friend of Mr. Obama, who beat back a growing challenge from David Hoffman.
While a number of states, including Nevada, Delaware, and Arkansas, show potential for shifting the Senate landscape and ceding seats to Republicans, Illinois’s race is particularly personal for the White House.
The seat is currently held by Roland Burris (D), who took office after Obama vacated the seat to become president. Mr. Burris’s appointment by ex-Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) was mired in controversy.
The loss of the seat to Republicans in this solidly Democratic-leaning state would be heralded by the GOP as a major coup.
‘Out of touch’ vs. ‘corrupt’
Already, each side in the race is taking shots at the other.
Mr. Giannoulias, in his victory speech, sought to portray Representative Kirk as out of touch with the electorate. He cited an old Kirk quote about unemployment not being a big issue in his district, adding, “It’s obvious that you’ve spent too many years in Washington, voting with the special interests to ship our jobs overseas. … But come November, Congressman, your days as a Washington insider are over.”
The National Republican Senatorial Committee, meanwhile, has already released a Web ad trying to connect Giannoulias to former Governor Blagojevich (awaiting trial for fraud), Tony Rezko, and the Mob. “Alexi Giannoulias: He’d make Tony Soprano proud,” the ad concludes.
Problems at Giannoulias’s family bank, which last week agreed to tougher government oversight and was described as “undercapitalized” by regulators, are also likely to be a liability for Giannoulias. Giannoulias worked as a loan officer there before becoming state treasurer.
“This will be a very bitter election,” says Dick Simpson, a political scientist at the University of Illinois in Chicago. “There will be a lot of attack ads not by the candidates themselves.” Democrats have a 10- to 15-percent advantage over Republicans in Illinois in terms of party affiliation, Professor Simpson adds, but if Kirk can gain enough support from independents, he has a possibility of winning.
Kirk – a House Republican who supports abortion rights and voted for a cap-and-trade system to cut US carbon emissions – is far from a “tea party” candidate, though he moved to the right during the primary campaign. His military service and years in the US House are likely to be used by Republicans to paint him as a more experienced and knowledgeable choice than Giannoulias, who is nearly 20 years his junior.
“He’s the best candidate the Republicans have put forth since [Peter] Fitzgerald,” who won a Senate seat in 1998, says Kent Redfield, a political scientist at the University of Illinois in Springfield. “His challenge is to keep those conservative votes – the 35 to 40 percent who didn’t vote for him last night – while moving to the center.”
Still, Professor Redfield notes, Illinois is a Democratic state and Giannoulias has some pluses, including name recognition, charisma, and a strong base.
“This is a tough state for a Republican to win in, but I’d be very nervous if I were the national Democrats. At a minimum, they’ll have to spend a lot of money defending a seat rather than trying to pick up a seat somewhere else.”
Gubernatorial lineup in limbo
While the Senate race is at least clear-cut, it’s still uncertain who the candidates will be for Illinois governor, in the first election since Blagojevich was indicted for fraud.
Pat Quinn, who has served as governor since Blagojevich was ousted, currently has a 0.8 percent lead over his primary opponent in the vote tally, Comptroller Dan Hynes, but Mr. Hynes has yet to concede the race.
The Republican side is even murkier, with the vote nearly evenly split four ways. The two leaders, state Sens. Bill Brady and Kirk Dillard, are separated by fewer than 1,500 votes with 99 percent of the votes counted, with Senator Brady in the lead. A recount seems inevitable.
Governor Quinn is weakened by the perception that he’s been an ineffective leader, and his apparent narrow victory in the primary won’t help. But if Brady -the lone downstate Republican candidate and the most conservative of the field – is in fact the victor, “the Republicans may have nominated the one person that Pat Quinn can beat,” says Redfield.