On Monday, Congressman Mark Kirk (R-IL) ended months of speculation over whether or not he would seek a promotion from the House seat he has held for five terms to the lofty confines of the stately Senate. Before entering the race, Kirk waited for the field to clear and yield a legitimate shot for a moderate Republican to steal the seat held previously by President Obama.
Kirk's upsides are many. He won election and re-election in a Democratic-leaning north suburban district of Chicago that was carried by Gore in 2000, Kerry in 2004, and Obama in 2008. Last November, he claimed victory with 53% of the vote while Obama drew 61% atop the ticket.
He is also a formidable fundraiser, generating $5 million in the last cycle (a rough one for his fellow Republicans) with little help from the national party, while facing a deluge of negative advertising from his opponent, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and 527 groups to the tune of $7 million. In the current cycle, he has raised $1.2 million for his House seat that is immediately transferable to the Senate race. This figure is only slightly behind the take of his probable Democratic opponent, Illinois State Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias ($1.6M). Kirk predicts that both sides will need to raise up to $20 million by Election Day next November.
The state and national Republican delegation has already coalesced behind Kirk. This includes former Illinois Governors Edgar and Thompson, current State Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno, Illinois House Leader Tom Cross, National Committeeman Pat Brady, and U.S. Senators Mitch McConnell and John McCain. He will face token opposition from retired downstate Judge Don Lowery and Matteson publisher Eric Wallace, among others, but the February primary promises to be little more than a coronation.
This gets to the crux of the story. Kirk is a moderate Republican with a socially-moderate-to-liberal voting record. Co-chair of the centrist Tuesday Group, he is pro-choice, pro-gun control, and even in favor of federal hate crime protections for homosexuals. While Kirk has consistently opposed President Obama's economic policies since January, he did stand as one of eight Republicans, and the only in the Midwest, to vote in favor of the House cap and trade legislation to regulate climate emissions.
His defense rests on the notion that the legislation will reduce domestic dependence on foreign oil, yet conservatives consider it anathema to their cause, claiming the legislation would unleash the largest across-the-board tax increase in history. Given that 60 Democrats defected in the 219-212 vote, the bill was doomed had Republicans held the fort. Kirk and seven others seeped through the cracks, and the legislation now stands before a weary Senate with President Obama eager to offer his signature.
Conservatives have since labeled him with the moniker "Cap'n Kirk," a play off of his distinguished service as a U.S. Naval Intelligence Officer as recent as 2008 in Afghanistan. The red meat portion of the Republican Party base is not known for its short memory, and Kirk must find a way to assuage their concerns in a primary season typically dominated by ideologues on each respective side of the aisle.
Assuming that Kirk survives, he has a betting chance to wrestle away a Senate seat in a purple state that has trended blue since 1998. By positioning himself as a centrist in tune with state voters' values and removed from the scandalous Blagojevich years, Kirk becomes the antidote to candidates either tied to the disgraced governor, the pay-to-play culture that cripples the state.
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