Saturday, July 11, 2009

The door opens for the GOP; they slam it shut

Republican Congressman Mark Kirk is a winner. Since the year 2000, the voters of Illinois' 10th Congressional District have been sending him to Washington DC despite the fact that the 10th is moderately Democratic. Representing some of the wealthiest suburbs north of Chicago, it voted for Gore over Bush 51-47 in 2000, for Kerry over Bush 52-47 in 2004 and for Obama over McCain by a staggering 61-38 in 2008.

The Illinois Republican Party has fallen on hard times. When I moved to Chicago in 1995, the GOP controlled the Governor's and Attorney General's offices as well as both houses of the state legislature and a majority of Illinois' Congressional seats. Today, that's all gone. But Mark Kirk has survived.

Next year, there will be an open seat race for the Senate seat held until this year by Barack Obama. This contest should represent a golden opportunity for the GOP to stage a comeback in the Land of Lincoln. Illinois Democrats have been rocked this year by the impeachment of Governor Rod Blagojevich. Attorney General Lisa Madigan, Illinois' most popular elected official, has announced that she will run for a third term rather than enter the Senate or Gubernatorial contests. Finally, continued weakness in the economy has caused the Obama Administration's popularity to sag a bit in the rust belt.

So the Republican Party should have been jumping for joy this past Wednesday when Mark Kirk signaled to National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn that he would run for Senator. Unfortunately for Kirk, his meeting with his party's top muckety-mucks didn't go too well. In fact, he was forced to immediately turn around and announce that he wouldn't run for Senate after all.

Why? According to the Washington Post, "Kirk's decision...followed a meeting of the Illinois Republican congressional delegation on Thursday in which his colleagues refused to back Kirk in a primary against Illinois Republican Party Chairman Andy McKenna due, in large part, to his vote in favor of President Barack Obama's climate change bill."

In other words, given the opportunity to run a candidate who is popular, successful and a titan of fundraising, Republican overlords have decided that they'd rather back a candidate who is a total unknown and who has no experience in running for office, but who is ideologically pure enough to suit them.

You can read a couple of good commentaries on this story here and here. American statesman Henry Clay used to say, "I'd rather be right than President." His spirit lives on in today's Republican Party.

Update 7/25/09: McKenna has stepped aside, so Kirk is back in the race. Kirk has quite a mountain to climb. He has to convince GOP big-wigs to get over their reluctance to back him. He has to convince rural down-state Republicans that he's not a Republican-in-name-only from Chicago. And he has to win in a blue state against a Democrat who has already won statewide election and who undoubtedly will receive support from President Obama. I wish Kirk no luck.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

A perfect 68

Fourth (and last) in a series of reflections on the 2008 election
Al Franken was sworn in today as Minnesota's junior Senator. Finally, the book is closed on the 2008 election.

There's a lot of reasons why I'm happy about this. I've been a Franken fan for a long time. I'm also glad that we've finally beaten Norm Coleman, who was elected only because of the death of Paul Wellstone, the greatest progressive of his era.

But let me jump back to election night '08 for a minute. At close to four in the morning, I was watching the late returns from Minnesota. When the last votes from Duluth finally came in, it looked like Coleman had won by a few votes. I was stunned, because Franken had been leading all night. I was further stunned because it looked like the Repbulican incumbent Senators in Alaska and Oregon had won reelection, despite widespread predictions that they would lose.

Sure, I didn't have a lot to complain about. Obama had won big. Governor Christine Gregoire had defeated challenger Dino Rossi. (The Seattle Post-Intelligencier had all but declared Gregoire doomed the day before. Of course it turned out that it was the P-I itself that was doomed, but that's another story).

Late returns counted after election night would eventually give victory to the Democratic challengers in Alaska and Oregon and to Al Franken as well after a long recount process.

This means that in the last two elections I have correctly predicted the outcomes of all 68 Senate elections. People ask me, "Joe, how do you do it?" Actually, no one's ever asked me that, but if they did, here's what I'd say:

These days, there are so many polls and so much analysis you can read online that it's fairly easily to predict the outcome of most races. On top of that, I look at which party has momentum. Most of the very close races break the same way in any given election. Lastly, I look for small things that tell me how a campaign is going.

For example, I knew that respected incumbent Republican Elizabeth Dole was going to lose her Senate reelection race to second-tier challenger Democrat Kay Hagan after I read this. If you want to win a close race, you need college-age people who will work 80-plus hours a week. Apparently the Dole campaign was run principally by old folks that she and Bob Dole had known for decades.

Similarly, I'm not yet ready to predict that Louisiana Democratic Congressman Charlie Melancon (Me-LAW-saw) will defeat incumbent Republican Senator David Vitter next year, but I am intrigued by this article. It suggests that in any close congressional race in Louisiana, if one candidate is Cajun and the other is not, the Cajun will win.

In conclusion, we now have 60 Democrats in the Senate, but we haven't really won anything unless our ballot box victories translate into the legislative victories we want. Let's start with public option.