Chicago Free-For-All

Kirk Departure Could Set Off Scramble

Posted March 23, 2009 at 6:32pm

If Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) runs for Senate in 2010 — a move he is very seriously considering — his departure would leave his Democratic-leaning seat open and highly vulnerable to a takeover next cycle.

Kirk, a fundraising powerhouse, has held on to his wealthy north Chicagoland district for five terms, even as Democrats unsuccessfully targeted him for defeat in 2008. If the moderate Republican steps down to run for Senate, Democrats will certainly target what is likely to be a blockbuster open-seat race.

“I think it’s a huge opportunity to pick up,— Illinois Democratic consultant Eric Adelstein said. “To his credit, [Kirk has] proven he’s pretty hard to beat.—

Adelstein said several Democrats will be interested in an open seat. The 2006 and 2008 Democratic nominee against Kirk, attorney Dan Seals, would likely run again if Kirk leaves, his former campaign manager Patrick Mogge confirmed.

“No one knows the 10th district better than Dan Seals,— Mogge said. “I know he’s interested in running again if it’s an open seat.—

But some national and local Democrats might be wary about giving Seals a third shot at winning the seat. Kirk defeated Seals with 53 percent of the vote in both 2006 and 2008, even as President Barack Obama won the district in his home state with 61 percent.

But in a Democratic primary in an expensive district like the 10th, Seals’ name identification could help him win the nomination for a third time. He defeated former Clinton White House official Jay Footlik 81 percent to 19 percent in the 2008 Democratic primary.

State Sen. Michael Bond and state Sen. Susan Garrett could also run for the seat if it becomes open, according to one local Democratic source. And given the district’s wealthy constituency, any number of political outsider candidates with deep pockets could also make a go at the seat.

But Adelstein, who did media for Seals’ Congressional races, cautioned that his former client would likely clear the field.

“You start looking at what Dan did to Footlik, who spent a lot of money, he’s the prohibitive favorite to be the nominee,— Adelstein said.

What’s more, national Democrats appear to be supportive of yet another Seals candidacy.

“Dan Seals has developed a strong base of support in Illinois, and should he choose to run again in Illinois 10 he would be a force to be reckoned with,— said Gabby Adler, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Republicans, however, might have more of a challenge — or at least more of a choice — in finding a potential successor to Kirk.

Kirk’s candidate profile is similar to that of his predecessor and onetime boss, former Rep. John Porter, a moderate Republican who represented the district for 20 years. John McGovern, a Republican consultant who managed Kirk’s first bid in 2000, said the district is a tough fit from a traditional partisan viewpoint.

“It’s a complicated district in the sense that it’s difficult to pigeonhole from a partisan standpoint,— McGovern said. “Voters tend to be extremely well-educated and, therefore, particularly thoughtful in the candidates they support and have a history of splitting tickets up and down the ballot.—

State Rep. Beth Coulson (R), a 13-term state legislator, is open to the possibility of running in Kirk’s stead.

“I would consider it, yes,— Coulson said in an interview. “I’m kind of waiting to see what else is happening here in the state of Illinois.—

Coulson, according to one Illinois Republican source, is considered to be even more moderate than Kirk on some issues — a possible problem in the GOP primary.

Other GOP elected officials, such as state Sen. Matt Murphy or state Sen. Dan Duffy, could also run, according to the same GOP source. The source said that while Murphy could be a conservative vote-getter and win the primary, his ideological tendencies could be problematic in a general election in such a moderate district. State Reps. JoAnn Osmond and Ed Sullivan Jr. could also run.

“I think you could see on both sides, definitely a big field,— said the Republican source. “Everyone will think this is a once-in-a-decade opportunity.—

But finding the right kind of GOP candidate for the district — and clearing the primary field for him or her — could be a problem down the road for Republicans.

“Unless there is a Kirk or John Porter clone waiting in the wings with the ability to raise significant dollars, the seat could belong to a moderate Democrat for the foreseeable future,— said John Russell, a onetime staffer to then-Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) who has worked in Illinois GOP politics.

National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Paul Lindsay said that if Kirk vacates his seat, the district could continue to be represented by an independent-minded Republican.

“Should he choose to run statewide, Kirk’s constituents will continue to be represented by someone who shares the same independent values that have distinguished his career,— Lindsay said.

And if Kirk does run and his campaign for Senate goes well in 2010, Republicans say his candidacy could boost the party’s candidates across the board in Illinois — including his own district.