Kirk Not Worried by Storm

Posted June 11, 2008 at 6:39pm

Election Day won’t be the first time Rep. Mark Kirk’s (R-Ill.) fate has been tested on the banks of Lake Michigan.

When he was a teenager, the four-term incumbent encountered the Great Lake’s notoriously unpredictable rough seas in little more than a dingy. After flipping his sail boat, Kirk lost his glasses and the boat’s centerboard, rendering the vessel useless and his options limited.

More than a mile from shore, the future lawmaker reckoned he’d brave the 40-degree water and swim back, Kirk recently recalled in an interview. He soon found himself too overwhelmed by the cold to continue.

But moments before the 16-year-old Kirk nearly cashed in his life’s chips, he said he was thrown a rope. Kirk next remembers waking up in the hold of a Coast Guard boat. His body temperature had reached 82 degrees, two degrees shy of cardiac failure. He asked whether he was going to die. The Coast Guardsman said he wasn’t sure.

“It was the life-defining event of my life,” Kirk said. “It changed everything.”

This year, Kirk’s world again is expected to experience “change,” except this time it’s a slogan carried by the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.), and an unusually large number of new Democratic voters in the Land of Lincoln.

And unlike his first clash with fate, there is little possibility of a political lifeline for Kirk this year. The National Republican Congressional Committee, which declined to comment on the race, is broke and may have bigger fish to fry other than protecting its best-heeled incumbent in his rematch with Dan Seals (D). The marketing consultant, who lost last cycle by 13,000 votes, has substantial support this time from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and is expected to be one of top beneficiaries nationally of an Obama-led ticket.

But Kirk apparently saw the writing on the wall early on this cycle, raising an impressive $2.9 million so far.

The policy-oriented lawmaker said another part of his strategy this cycle by is to continue to stake out moderate positions on abortion, gun control and other issues that resonate in the district, which takes in wealthy suburbs like leafy Highland Park north of Chicago. Kirk also said he has paid particular attention to local environmental issues and organized gang infestation in the district’s poorer enclaves.

So far, Kirk’s battle plan appears to be working. In a ballot test released Tuesday, Kirk was well ahead of Seals, 53 percent to 32 percent.

The poll, taken by McLaughlin and Associates on Monday, included 300 likely general election voters and had a 5.6-point margin of error.

More importantly, the survey also explored Obama’s possible effect downballot, which Democrats are speculating may open new doors for their party in traditional Republican strongholds like Virginia and North Carolina.

But the recent campaign survey memo suggests that, in fact, a dramatically different dynamic is under way in Kirk’s district.

“In a district that is 33 percent Republican and 35 percent Democrat, the answer to this question will be decided by ‘independents’ and ‘ticket splitters,’” the polling memo stated. “Currently, these likely Obama voters are breaking for Kirk by a 2-to-1 margin and have a significantly highly favorable opinion of Mark Kirk.”

In an interview last week, just days before the poll was released, Kirk argued a similar logic, claiming that although Obama will carry his predominately wealthy and highly educated constituency in November, it may not be a blowout against the presumptive GOP nominee, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.).

And unlike the GOP moderates of last cycle, Kirk also is not planning to stow away every last vestige of his party affiliation ahead of the election. Quite the contrary. He is arranging joint campaign appearances with McCain in the district and, in early September, Kirk plans on attending the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn.

Moreover, Kirk predicted that the district’s heavily Jewish population, which he estimated at 20 percent of the electorate, will gravitate toward McCain, who is often considered to hold a stronger stances on Israel and national security than Obama.

Kirk also said many Democratic district voters rarely leave the polling place without picking at least one Republican.

“People in our district feel guilty unless they vote for someone in the other party,” Kirk said. “There is a popularity for McCain in the Jewish community that was not there for the president.”

President Bush lost Kirk’s district twice, taking 47 percent of the vote each time.

And if Jewish voters continue to question Obama, Kirk said, they too may look skeptically at his opponent, Seals, a candidate who shares a similar profile with Obama and whose campaign undoubtedly is counting on a massive boost from the presidential nominee on Election Day.

Still, Seals worked early on to secure strong backing from Jewish leaders and soundly defeated Jay Footlik, a former Clinton White House official, in this year’s Democratic primary.

Chief among Seals’ early champions were Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) and former federal judge Abner Mikva, who represented Kirk’s district in Congress decades ago and now is a political confidant to Seals.

Ironically, Kirk said one of his first political jobs was working for the Democratic Mikva in the early 1970s. Kirk later switched parties — because a Democratic lawmaker was mean to him, he said — and he eventually become an aide to ex-Rep. John Porter (R-Ill.), whose seat he won after Porter retired in 2000.

Early on, Porter warned Kirk about the now-octogenarian Mikva, who is still known as a gun-slinging Windy City partisan and perpetual antagonist to Kirk or to any other Republican who dares campaign in the Chicagoland area.

At a social engagement after he was elected to Congress, Kirk recalled that he once unsuccessfully tried to bury the hatchet with Mikva.

“I came up to him and said: ‘Ab, I’m Mark Kirk … I worked for you in 1974,” Kirk recalled. “[Mikva] said, ‘well, I hope you lose.’”

In an interview, Mikva did not dispute Kirk’s recollection, other than to say, “I hope I didn’t say it meanly.”

The former Clinton White House lawyer argued that Kirk ultimately will be a casualty of the battered Republican brand, which also will suffer in his district this fall because of the aging McCain, who will “come across as very old” to voters.

Mikva also said Kirk should study up on his narrow 1976 victory in the district, which perhaps set the bar for what Kirk must accomplish should Obama win big. That year, newcomer Jimmy Carter (D) lost to incumbent Gerald Ford (R) in the North Shore district by 30,000 votes, while Mikva eked out a 201-vote victory.

“That’s about a big of swing as you can hope for between the president and the Congressman,” Mikva said.