Politics & Policy

The Weak Link in the GOP Senate Majority?

Illinois senator Mark Kirk
Senator Kirk and the GOP need to think hard about what happens next.

Illinois Senator Mark Kirk has won a lot of respect for his gritty recovery from a serious stroke in 2012. But his fellow Republicans worry that his recent political and verbal stumbles make him the most vulnerable GOP incumbent up for reelection in 2016 in a state Barack Obama won with 58 percent of the vote in 2012.

This week, Ron Gidwitz — Illinois’s premier GOP fundraiser and the finance chairman for Bruce Rauner’s successful race for governor last year — told Crain’s Chicago Business that he wanted Kirk “to step aside and allow other Republicans to seek his seat.” He warned that Kirk “could cause collateral damage” to other GOP candidates if he was on the ballot.

But when Greg Hinz from Crain’s called Kirk’s office for comment on Gidwitz’s statement, he very quickly got a call back from the fundraiser — desperate to “retract.” Gidwitz told Hinz he had gotten “quite a number” of phone calls from VIPs in just an hour. “I don’t want to take the heat I’ll get.”

The Chicago Tribune reports that allies of Governor Rauner were behind some of the calls. Rauner has decided to adopt a Kirk-or-bust attitude, with his aides going so far as to claim there isn’t enough time to recruit and fund a another major candidate. 

That’s absurd for a race in which primary filing doesn’t begin for another four months and the general election is more than 15 months away. The Illinois Republican bench includes Congressman Adam Kinzinger, an Iraq War veteran in Kirk’s moderate mold, Republican National Committeewoman Demetra DeMonte, former Representative Joe Walsh, and Jason Plummer, a 2010 candidate for lieutenant governor. “The key to the Senate race will be — in addition to the miserable Illinois economy — social issue crossovers from largely blue-collar ethnic Catholic, Reagan Democrats in Cook County and adjacent counties,” conservative publisher Jameson Campaigne tells me. He believes Kirk has little or no ability to motivate those voters to support him.

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It’s certainly true that enough time remains for Kirk to stabilize his candidacy, build up more physical strength, and keep his Senate seat by defeating the likely Democratic nominee, Tammy Duckworth. A Chicago-area congresswoman, Duckworth lost both legs in a 2004 helicopter crash in Iraq and is a media darling. But she also can be tied to Chicago’s Democratic machine and has a completely predictable liberal voting record.

Perhaps to avoid scrutiny of that record, this week Duckworth released a two-minute video called “Mark Kirk’s Outrageous Statements.” It includes last month’s stunner, when Kirk was caught on an open microphone addressing Senator Lindsey Graham’s bachelor status. “He’s a bro with no ho,” Kirk said — managing to anger social liberals and blacks in the same breath. This February, while debating homeland security, Kirk warned, “If we have a successful terrorist attack — all the dead Americans from that should be laid at the feet of the Democratic caucus.”

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Recent polls show just how steep Kirk’s comeback trajectory will have to be. A late June survey found Duckworth leading Kirk 44 to 27 percent. Most ominously, the pollster behind the Observer poll, Ogden & Fry, was the only polling firm to correctly predict the recent winning margins of Governor Rauner and Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel.

A more recent survey released this week by Public Policy Polling had better news for Kirk, but not by much. In the PPP poll he trails Duckworth by 42 to 36 percent and sports a miserable 25 percent approval rating.

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Republican operatives are urging Kirk to simply lie low, stick to the Senate floor, and wait for the controversy surrounding him to dissipate. Kirk, a retired Navy Reserve officer, is a cogent critic of President Obama’s Iran nuclear deal as well as of Obamacare.

#related#But while incumbents can almost never be counted out completely, Kirk’s political standing is among the lowest of any recent embattled incumbent. Next year, 24 Republican Senate seats will be on the ballot, versus only ten seats held by Democrats. It would take only a few lucky breaks for the Democrats to win back control of the Senate they lost last year. They would then be able to promote an agenda of a new Democratic president or completely frustrate a new GOP president. Every Senate race is important next year, and that’s why Republicans in Illinois and nationwide are paying so much attention to Senator Kirk’s weakness.

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