Thursday, August 19, 2010

Illinois U.S. Senate Race

Race of the Day

Illinois U.S. Senate

August 19, 2010
75 Days Until Election Day

Status: Democrat Open
2008 Presidential Result: Blue State (Midwest)

Outlook: Leans Republican

Many people may not be aware that for the first time this year, Illinois voters will be able to legally vote early and often.

There will be two elections on the ballot; one to fill a seat in the U.S. Senate for six years, and another to serve about two months in the seat vacated when Barack Obama was elected President. For some time, there had been much debate in Illinois state government as to whether a quick special election could be held, with Democrats initially speaking out in favor of changing the law to allow it, but then retreating when it appeared a Republican could be victorious. Just when it seemed like the issue of the special election was a thing of the past, a federal judge ruled that one would indeed need to be held, and it will take place on November's Election Day.

The nominees of the Democrat, Republican, and Green parties, selected in the February primaries, have been granted automatic ballot placement for the special election recently by a judge, much to the chagrin of current interim Democrat Senator Roland Burris, who is loathe to leave the last office he will ever hold, even a day early (and might very well already have 2011 inscribed on his personal mausoleum) and has claimed he will sue in an attempt to be a candidate for the special election. The most practical aspect of the simultaneous elections though is that the same candidate will win both offices, although there may be a very interesting aspect that the special election brings to the campaign finance situation which could greatly work to the advantage of one particular candidate.

To go back a bit for a small amount of background, even before Obama was elected to the White House, Illinois's embattled Democrat Governor Rod Blagojevich was giving much thought to the ("f"in' golden") power he would hold to select a Senate replacement. After being arrested in December for attempting to sell that Senate appointment (among other charges), Blagojevich said that taped phone recordings entered into evidence would prove he was simply practicing politics and was trying to best benefit the state. It is has been reported that eleven jurors disagreed with that assessment and believe it was a criminal scheme to replace Obama, while one lone juror sided with Blago causing a hung jury on that count, as well as many others. The Governor, who would be impeached and removed by the Illinois General Assembly not long after his indictment, was convicted of one charge of lying to the FBI, and the government has said they are intent on moving quickly towards a re-trial. As mentioned in yesterday's discussion of the Gubernatorial race in Illinois, the continuance of the Blago saga is a major headache for every Democrat on the ballot this year in the state.

Before leaving office though, Blagojevich brazenly selected a once respected name in Illinois politics, Democrat Roland Burris to complete Obama's turn. Burris had lobbied very hard for the job and seemed to have little qualms upon accepting an appointment from such a tarnished Governor. After meeting much initial opposition, state and national Democrats ultimately agreed to not oppose the seating of Burris, who went on to become the only African-American in the U.S. Senate. While the now 73 year old Burris seemed to have every intention of running for a full term in 2010, he found that his political reputation had hit new lows, and that he was unable to raise money. In 2009, facing a certain primary challenge, Burris reluctantly agreed he would not seek to keep the seat in the next election.

With the mess of Blagojevich and Burris hanging over their heads, and the potential embarrassment of losing the Senate seat in a reliably Democrat state, which had been held by the now President, party leaders in Washington D.C. and back in Illinois tried to find the strongest possible candidate for the job. The White House worked hard to get the state's popular Attorney General Lisa Madigan to seek the office, when she looked more likely to instead run for Governor. To their disappointment, she decided she would merely run for reelection to her current job. That left Alexi Giannoulias, the state's Treasurer as the frontrunner for the nomination.

Giannoulias is a 34 year old ambitious politician, who had a job at his family's bank and was able to spend from his personal bank account to defeat the party establishment and win statewide office in 2006, in a race that received scant attention. He was particularly helped in the primary by an ad featuring an endorsement by then Senator Obama, who had often played basketball with Giannoulias (himself a former professional player in Europe) in Chicago. The White House has been far more circumspect about Giannoulias in this race though because of various questions about his record and ethics. His family business, Broadway Bank, has since been shut down by federal authorities, and even in the 2006 race, there were questions regarding loans to mobsters and links the bank might have to organized crime. With the attention of a high profile race, this is serious baggage for a candidate to have, especially in the wake of the Blagojevich era, and compounding the trouble for the Treasurer is the fact that he has been accused of losing millions of dollars of the state's college savings for kids program in risky stock investments.

The Democrat primary would come to include several other candidates in addition to Giannoulias, but he would face the strongest challenge from David Hoffman, who left his job as the Inspector General of the City of Chicago. While Hoffman started off with scant name recognition, questions about Giannoulias's ethics and political viability caused the race to be extremely close at the end. Ultimately, Giannoulias's money and name recognition allowed him to prevail in the February primary, but even after that result, there continued to be speculation in some quarters that the nominee could somehow be booted from the ticket and replaced by someone stronger.

Giannoulias's Republican opponent is Congressman Mark Kirk, who for five terms has represented a very competitive political district in the Chicago suburbs, which favors Democrats. Kirk was particularly targeted by national party organizations in the last two cycles, and despite the horrible environment for Republicans in the district, managed to pull off impressive wins, aided by a moderate political image and a strong grassroots volunteer base. Kirk who fashions himself as a "thoughtful, independent" was perhaps a lot to swallow for many of the state's conservatives who bemoaned parts of his House voting record, including one in favor of the Cap and Trade bill, and his pro-choice stand on abortion. While none of Kirk's primary opponents ever really gathered any major steam, they did hammer away at him from the right and one particular gadfly candidate raised unfounded allegations regarding Kirk's private life.

One of the more interesting aspects to this campaign is that which involves Kirk's ex-wife, from whom he was divorced last year. She appeared at his campaign kickoff and spoke in support of him, but in the past month, Kimberly Vertolli, who admits to being liberal on many issues, has claimed that her former husband is somehow under the spell of a female political staffer who has been pushing him to the right and is maybe responsible for the break-up of the marriage. She stated though that she really does still like Mark Kirk and believes he will be a great Senator and that Alexi Giannoulias is pretty horrible. That could have maybe been the end of the situation, but in the past week, the GOP candidate's camp announced that the former Mrs. Kirk was officially joining the campaign in some capacity.

Kirk had been talked about as a potential statewide star in Illinois for several years prior to making this race, and does have to indeed be considered someone who is a good ideological fit for the state. Since winning the primary though, the Republican's campaign has taken some unexpected hits. Many of those involve what is considered exaggerating of what everyone agrees is an impressive record of military service by Kirk, who is still a Commander in the Naval Reserves. The Congressman has had to apologize for what he claims were inadvertent false claims about an award he received and other questions have been raised about his veracity involving his biography, both military wise and in other regards. The media hammered Kirk for much of this summer and it has caused his personal favorability numbers to take a tumble. Both Kirk and Giannoulias are now pretty unpopular with the state's voters, which is ironic since both were once considered rising political stars not long ago.

In taking into consideration the political weaknesses and stumbles that both candidates have endured in recent months, is the fact that due to the 2006 Gubernatorial result, the Green Party has automatic ballot access in Illinois, and that the nominee of the party, a young African-American political activist named LeAlan Jones, might be expected to take several points more than a third party candidate might otherwise get in the race, despite running a fairly little noticed campaign. This protest vote for Jones, would seem to theoretically hurt Giannoulias and the Democrats far more based on political ideology. Furthermore, a couple of the state's African-American U.S. House members have appeared to be publicly lukewarm about the Giannoulias campaign and any depression in the heavily Democrat black Chicago vote could be tough to overcome in a close race.

Despite a summer of bad press, Kirk's campaign fundraising has been very impressive and he currently has a fairly sizable cash on hand advantage over Giannoulias and can be expected to put that money to use on ads, particularly negative ones, which will remind voters of questionable aspects of Giannoulias's young career and background. The theme of "mob banker" has been prominent ever since the primary ended and some are speculating as to whether Kirk is perhaps pushing it a bit too hard.

With the financial lead Kirk currently has, it might even be compounded if it turns out that the candidates can double the limits of what they can raise from donors, due to the fact that the candidates are technically running in two Senate elections at once. If that is ruled to be allowed, Kirk would be able to go to his donors who have already maxed out and raise even more money. This would make the cash discrepancy even more pronounced and could be a huge factor in Kirk's favor.

Currently, the polls show a very close race in the state, with neither candidate having been ahead by more than a point or two. It has been somewhat frustrating to Republicans to see the once highly touted Kirk struggling to put away a flawed Democrat opponent in what is supposed to be such a strong GOP year, including with the present special circumstances in Illinois. Kirk's self-inflicted wounds and the reluctance that many social conservatives continue to have in rallying behind the GOP nominee means that Kirk still has some work to do in solidifying his base. That will be a bit of a balancing act, since he will also need to do well among moderates to win. Kirk has done well among moderates and Democrats in his Congressional district in past elections (many of whom especially appreciate his strong commitment to Israel), and he will also have to work to win those votes. In the state, a lot of voters on both sides might be holding their nose at the ballot box, due to the current conventional wisdom involving both nominees.

President Obama has recently raised money on behalf of Giannoulias, and there is perhaps no single race that the White House would fear losing more than this one, due to the symbolism of the contest. It cannot be denied though that the former Chicagoans in the West Wing would have preferred a different candidate on the ballot than Giannoulias. This particular contest is probably a far smaller priority to Michael Madigan, the very powerful State House Speaker and State Party Chair, who has despised Giannoulias since the 2006 primary and never got around to endorsing him in that general election. At the same time, despite Kirk's rocky debut at the statewide level, it is hard to imagine any current Republican who would be better poised to win the seat.

On the surface, this race now appears to be a tossup, and any Republican winning in Illinois has a difficult task ahead of them, but my overall view is that the dynamics of the race will work to Kirk's advantage. He has faced difficult political challenges in recent years in general elections and closed strongly at the end. Kirk might also have the edge in head to head debates and seems eager to hold as many as possible, while the Giannoulias campaign has been demurring thus far. With the GOP candidate for Governor currently ahead in the race over a embattled Democrat opponent. and strong among Downstate conservatives, there could be some coattails to be had for his moderate Chicago area ticket mate, at least in regards to turnout.

It is a bad year to be a Democrat in Illinois with rumors of mob connections. Giannoulias will try to change the subject to try to paint Kirk as a personal liar or a Washington insider who at times supported President George W. Bush, but the Democrat nominee will have a hard time winning, especially when faced with a barrage of ads regarding his role at Broadway Bank and record as State Treasurer.

This race really should not be close at the moment, but it is. After Labor Day, Kirk's money edge and his opponent's weaknesses being more significant than his, will probably turn the Obama/Burris seat into an immediate GOP pickup by about five points.

Kirk (the candidate whose HQ I will likely spend this historic upcoming Election Night at) campaign link:

2010 U.S. Senate races predicted thus far: 3 D, 10 R
Predicted U.S. Senate Balance of Power thus far: 43 D, 33 R