10/05/2013 09:14 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Lone Chicago GOP Lawmaker Draws Young Democratic Challenger

Chicago Republican State Rep. Mike McAuliffe has drawn a general election opponent, though it remains to be seen if the upstart challenger will draw any enthusiasm from Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan.

Mohamed "Mo" Kahn, 28, a Park Ridge-based accountant and law school student, is hoping to take out the only Illinois Republican House seat with Chicago territory. He previously volunteered for Hillary Clinton's presidential primary in 2008 and worked for former Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias.

First elected in 1997, McAuliffe hasn't been challenged in 10 years. He had a couple close calls in 2002 and 2004, which were expensive contests against credible Democratic candidates, but McAuliffe proved to be a solid campaigner who appealed to both moderate Republicans and conservative Democratic voters. Since, he has been able to solidify his hold on the seat.

Partisan lines tend to blur on the northwest side where both voters and power-brokers alike have a habit of putting results ahead of ideology. McAuliffe's father served in the House prior to him; so, voters have been seeing his family name on a ballot since the 1970's. The name is a known and trusted commodity. In past campaigns, McAuliffe has even enjoyed endorsements from local Democratic mayors and has been able to convince powerful Democratic Committeeman to stay neutral in his campaigns.

McAuliffe has also benefited from a détente between Northwest Suburban Republicans and the Democratic Party of Illinois campaign operation. Rather than spend a lot of money in expensive districts only to defeat mostly friendly and cooperative elements of the Republican caucus, the Democrats have generally left legislators like McAuliffe alone, often in exchange for one of their own getting a pass.

Some insiders wondered, after the House Democrats beat neighboring State Rep. Skip Saviano (R-Elmwood Park) in the last cycle, if the peace agreement had broken down. The remap process loaded up Saviano's district with Latino voters, but map makers gave McAuliffe a safer district in the suburbs and let him keep his Chicago 41st ward base.

Clearly, during the remap, Madigan placed no target on McAuliffe's back as was placed on Saviano's.

Kahn wasn't recruited by the House Democratic operation and is unlikely to get staff support or other resources from the party - at least until he can show that he can be competitive, insiders say. It's the Catch-22 faced by all candidates not recruited by Madigan.

On his own, Kahn has been able to raise $23,500 so far, including $1,000 from Elizabeth Tisdahl, Evanston's mayor. And while it appears some of the money is coming from family and friends, that's a respectable cash pile this early in the game. In contrast, at the end of the second quarter, McAuliffe had just $26,458 in the bank. He has reported $29,000 in large contributions during the second quarter, but he has a burn rate of about $18,000 per quarter, leaving McAuliffe a negligible financial edge. And at the moment, the House GOP operation is in no position to immediately bolster the 17-year veteran.

If Kahn is willing to stake out some liberal positions on social issues, there is money to be had on the left wing of the party. Simultaneously, if Kahn wants to win in this centrist district, he needs to avoid alienating the more conservative suburban and 41st Ward voters.

McAuliffe generally has the support of labor and talks little about sensitive social issues. However, the incumbent is on record against same sex marriage. If Kahn pledges to be a "yes" vote, he may find an opportunity there. Pro-marriage equality interests have deep pocketed backers - Republican and Democratic alike - and if there is still no favorable resolution on this issue by the general election, Kahn, if he backs marriage equality, could find himself well-funded.

Kahn, who is backing 8-year term limits on lawmakers, is likely calculating that McAuliffe has become so entrenched and comfortable that he can convince enough Democrats and independents to make a change. He may translate McAuliffe's longevity into votes if he's willing to outwork the long-seated incumbent.

McAuliffe has been able to fend off previous challenges with heavy negative attacks and a lot of shoe leather on the street. But it has been 10 years since his last challenge and candidates have a tendency to let the rust build and spread when left uncontested for a while.

Kahn also presents a blank slate and probably provides little in the way of opposition research, save the Giannoulias connection. McAuliffe, on the other hand, has pages upon pages of potentially bad votes to use against him.

The odds are tilted against Kahn, but he is showing just enough early promise that some insiders are now paying attention to this race's early stages.

David also edits, with the help Capitol Fax's Rich Miller,
The Illinois Observer: The Insider, in which this article first appeared.