By Frank J Biga III -
You read that right. Illinois is indeed a state that could go for Donald Trump in November. I doubt he will win Illinois in the end, but the chances have increased. In the last week a poll by Emerson had Donald Trump trailing Clinton here by only 6 points! The national trend for Trump heading in to the first debate is also good news and shows him either tied or up a few points. Illinois will be a tough nut to crack, though, and will likely only go for Trump in a 1980 landslide type scenario.
But I have been telling my friends for months that Mark Kirk is likely to win re-election to the Senate here in Illinois. And the possibility of him retaining his seat has increased substantially. The same Emerson poll showed Mark Kirk is only behind Democrat Tammy Duckworth by 2 and more importantly the trend is improving for him as the last poll by Loras College a week earlier showed Duckworth up by 5. He was behind by double digits early in the race so these newer polls are encouraging news.
Some history on Illinois’ elections. As many know Illinois has been a reliable bulwark in the Democratic column since Bill Clinton’s election in 1992. For six Presidential elections in a row Illinois has basically been written off by the GOP candidate. I do recall briefly in 2000 that George Bush came to Thomas Middle School in Arlington Heights as the polls had tightened enough to justify a campaign visit. But in the end Al Gore won the state by 12 points. And so it has gone ever since.
Illinois has also not elected a Republican Senator in a Presidential year since Charles Percy won in 1972! If anyone can break that record it is indeed another North Shore resident Mark Kirk. I disagree with Kirk on quite a few issues but he has run a masterful campaign thus far against a bland opponent. His path to victory cobbles together a strong showing in Lake County, DuPage county, the northern suburbs and the other collar counties along with running up larger than usual majorities in most of the downstate counties.
It may not work and Kirk has to fight the general tide, but Kirk has the political connections and network to make a serious effort with this strategy. Duckworth has never run for statewide office before and has a smaller political base. Her own district will probably even vote for Kirk. Duckworth is relying on the general left tilt of Illinois and specifically Chicago to win. Such a strategy has failed many a candidate before. Just ask George Allen of Virginia about 2006 or Todd Akin of Missouri and Roger Mourdoch of Indiana about 2012.
Kirk is also clearly counting on less enthusiasm in the city for voting this year without President Obama on the ticket. Senator Durbin won the last Senate race in an election year in 2008. He won with 3.6 million votes out of about 5.1 Million cast, so it was a blowout. But that was 2008 and voter turnout was higher than usual.
So, if turnout is indeed a little lower this election Kirk will likely need 2.3 to 2.4 Million votes to eke out a victory rather than 2.6 million. Now he only got 1.78 Million votes in his 2010 win. So how does Kirk get that extra 500,000 votes?
That’s the big trick. And only a politician with the skill (and luck) of Kirk could pull it off. Some of it will come from get out the vote efforts, some from new Trump voters who will also vote for him, some from Democrats who like his liberal stance on social issues and don’t even know who Duckworth is. But I also think, despite all the Facebook posts stating that they won’t vote for Kirk, conservatives will once again hold their nose and vote for him once they realize that holding Kirk’s seat might be the difference between a Senate majority or minority.
Imagine trying to stop Hillary Clinton nominating a leftist Supreme Court justice with only 49 Senate votes. It won’t work. The Democrats will change the Senate rules to disallow a filibuster in order to garner a Court majority for the next three decades. There is nothing more salient to conservatives this year than the prospect that the Supreme Court is lost for a generation. And in 2014 many conservatives held their nose and voted for Governor Rauner over merely losing our State. Trust me, conservatives will come through for Kirk if they think the Bill of Rights is at stake.
And Senate races in other states make this meme more plausible. Evan Bayh could steal a seat in Indiana. Richard Burr of North Carolina is putting forward a lackluster effort in what he says will be his last campaign. Roy Blunt of Missouri is facing a tough re-election battle in a state that re-elected Claire McCaskill back in 2012. Pennsylvania is a true toss-up. Portman looks solid in Ohio, but Wisconsin is all but lost and New Hampshire is a pick’em. So Kirk’s race closing up is now even more important.
Another minor point, but it goes to optics. Both candidates are physically handicapped. But Kirk has an advantage as he holds the trappings of office and has used that to look more Senatorial. His recent commercial shows him at work in his office and the image is powerful. Duckworth can not match this.
I expect the narrowest of Kirk victories in the end. It will be the surprise of the night in the Senate battleground. In fact, if this race is close and Kirk wins, I expect it to come down to less than 10,000 votes and we will be counting late in to the night. We’ll also get to learn the names of some new counties in Illinois as we await their final results from late arriving ballot boxes.
A bigger question lingers though. If Kirk does indeed win re-election and Trump is President, how long will Kirk remain a Republican?