IN THE NEWS:
The most endangered Republican in the country
How gaffe-prone Sen. Mark Kirk, written off by much of his party, is trying to hang on in Illinois.
Northbrook, IL - October 27, 2015
It’s hard to tell sometimes that Mark Kirk is running for reelection here as a Republican: In a span of two days on the campaign trail last week, the first-term senator name-checked Bernie Sanders as an ally, pitched himself as a champion of the environment and pledged that the federal government wouldn’t shut down over Planned Parenthood.
“It is poor government to close down the government over Planned Parenthood — makes no sense,” Kirk told the New Trier Republicans before their annual fall dinner.
A centrist on social issues and a hawk on foreign policy — he praised Sanders for backing his push for sanctions against Iran — Kirk has long been among a shrinking number of moderate Republicans in Congress. But now the 56-year-old lawmaker is in the fight of his political career – the most vulnerable Republican senator on the ballot next year who occupies one of five seats Democrats must win to take back the Senate.
To make matters worse, Kirk has been largely written off by national party operatives,
who have the unfortunate task of defending a staggering 24 seats in 2016. Their calculation isn’t that surprising: Illinois is overwhelmingly Democratic, Hillary Clinton is likely to be on the ticket and Kirk is expected to face off against a female veteran in the general election.
One of his best shots at reelection is a bloody Democratic primary between Rep. Tammy Duckworth and liberal Democrat Andrea Zopp that could hobble their bids and give him a strong cash advantage. Kirk already has banked $800,000 more than Duckworth.
Trying to hang on against those long odds, exacerbated by a string of gaffes unhelpful to his cause with left-leaning constituencies, Kirk is sounding a lot like a Democrat. He needs to win over women and independents, especially in the Chicago suburbs, to have any hope.
The only Republican senator to receive an “F” rating from the National Rifle Association, he trumpeted his record on gun control at a luncheon last week hosted by the Illinois Council Against Handgun Violence. As the group bestowed him with a “lifetime achievement” award, Kirk boasted about how he secured $18.5 million in anti-gang funding.
“Let me say, there is a man-bites-dog aspect for giving an anti-gun violence award to a Republican,” Kirk said in brief remarks to the group. “You never know where you are going to find friends, and I’m going to help you find friends in the Republican Party.”
Kirk is also highlighting environmental legislation he has authored that would ban sewage dumping in Lake Michigan.
“That is the source of our drinking water,” Kirk said of his Lake Michigan bill in an interview. “For a Republican to lean in on environmental issues is unusual, and I’ve already got that attached to the appropriations process.”
And the former Navy intelligence officer is talking up his push for better troop pay and more naval ships. But it’s been harder for him to gain traction on legislative ideas coming from the more moderate faction of the party.
Despite Kirk’s push to broaden his appeal, Republicans at the local and national level concede the race is a serious uphill climb.
Tolbert Chisum, executive vice president of the Chicago Trust Company and former head of the New Trier Republicans, said if any Republican can draw the kind of support from women and independents it will take to keep the seat, it’s Kirk. But “running [statewide] as a Republican is tough for anybody” in the blue-tilting state next year.
“It’s a tough race in Illinois in a presidential year,” agreed Illinois Republican National Committee member Richard Porter.
There was buzz in some GOP circles that Kirk might retire before the election-ballot filing deadline and another Republican lawmaker — Rep. Adam Kinzinger’s name has been mentioned — would run in his place. But Kirk insiders said there is no doubt the senator is all in.
Kirk has the additional hurdle of running his first campaign since he suffered a major stroke in early 2012 that took him away from Capitol Hill for nearly a year as he rehabilitated. He often uses a wheelchair now, his speech is slower and he has acknowledged being more emotional. In May, his campaign ran its first ad detailing his comeback from the stroke, including video of him successfully walking up the Capitol steps almost a year later.
“In many ways I think he’s a guy that could be a more appealing candidate in the wake of having this enormous challenge and overcoming it,” Porter said of Kirk. “I think it could actually work to his benefit politically in an odd sort of way, because people see a guy who has struggled and overcome that and is managing to succeed.”
His Senate colleagues aren’t nearly as optimistic about his chances.
Senate Republicans have privately discussed the electoral landscape during their weekly lunches and at party headquarters. Though Kirk isn’t the only vulnerable Republican senator, he is, they’ve concluded, the most endangered. Illinois is “almost impossible” for Kirk to win, said one GOP senator.
To which Kirk responds: Inside-the-Beltway Republicans just don’t understand the Land of Lincoln.
“Illinois used to be Obama country, [but] after eight years in office this is not. That is reflected in my victory and [Illinois Gov. Bruce] Rauner’s victory” last year, Kirk said. “The biggest challenge I have with Washingtonians is they think Illinois is exclusively a Democratic state. Most Washingtonians don’t bother to know about Illinois, and they make the mistake of forgetting the 2010 election that I won and the 2014 election that Rauner won.”
Kirk has a history of outperforming the national ticket. In 2004, running in the former 10th Congressional District, Kirk bettered President George W. Bush’s results by 17 percentage points. During Kirk’s 2008 House campaign, he outperformed Republican presidential nominee John McCain by 15 points in one of the state’s most Democratic congressional districts.
A string of gaffes by Kirk has undermined his efforts to continue that success among Democratic voters. In June, he was caught on a live mic calling bachelor Sen. Lindsey Graham a “bro with no ho.” That came a few months after he said that people drive more quickly through black neighborhoods.
Since then, the Cornell- and Georgetown Law-educated Kirk has become more guarded. Asked in September a straightforward question about his Democratic opponents’ position on the Iran nuclear deal, he said, “I’m not looking to make news today.”
Though he rarely stops and holds court with reporters in the Capitol, as he did before his reelection was upon him, Kirk has occasionally done interviews on topics of interest to him, especially Iran. But even at home he’s often stuck to safe events where he’s unlikely to make news, such as ones devoted to fighting cancer and improving manufacturing.
Kirk said he’ll have a “full-spectrum campaign” in 2016. “I think things will really get rolling at some point. We need to be accountable to the people of Illinois and give them a good taste of who seeks to represent them in the Senate,” he added.
Democrats agree Illinois is their best pickup opportunity next year. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who was reelected to his fourth term last year after a ticket-splitting election that saw a GOP governor elected, said higher turnout is especially favorable to his party.
“In presidential years, 70 percent show up. And if that holds true, that usually benefits Democrats,” Durbin said.
Indeed, in that part of the Midwest, Kirk and Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) are both likely to need a big lift from a GOP presidential candidate who can appeal across traditional party lines.
“They’re both going to be tough races. I’m actually feeling pretty good about [my] race,” said Johnson. “Both of them are going to very influenced by what happens at the presidential level. Both of them are going to be outside our influence and our level of control.”
Though Kirk’s reelection is worry No. 1 one for many GOP strategists, they have been boosted by a surprise primary on the Democratic side between Duckworth and the more liberal Zopp, who has attacked Duckworth for delaying her support of the Iran deal.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has endorsed Duckworth, an Iraq War veteran and a double amputee. But the party knows it must tread carefully so as not to alienate progressives and black voters, whom Zopp is trying to appeal to for support.
“The primary could be a problem,” said DSCC Chairman Jon Tester of Montana. “Certainly Andrea’s a nice person, but Tammy’s going to perform better in a general.”
Duckworth said she is “just running my race” and is continuing to work hard on the ground to show the differences among herself, Zopp and Kirk.
“He’s not been good for the state and certainly hasn’t been good for the people of Illinois,” Duckworth said of Kirk. “I’m taking a whole state approach to my campaign because, really, that is how I am going to serve.”
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