Senate Special Election Now Likely in Illinois

Posted July 24, 2010 at 8:56am

Almost two years after Barack Obama was elected president, Illinois is still grappling with how to replace him in the Senate.

The latest twist in the saga that began almost immediately after Obama won the White House came late Thursday, when a federal appeals court in Illinois set the stage for a special election to fill the final eight weeks of Obama’s Senate term.

Sen. Roland Burris (D) has been serving in the Senate since early 2009, though his appointment by disgraced ex-Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) was wracked by controversy. Blagojevich is currently on trial in federal court on corruption charges, including accusations that he tried to sell Obama’s Senate seat. Burris’ appointment was so troubling to Senate leaders that they briefly wrestled with whether to seat him.

Burris eventually took his place in the chamber and has served fairly anonymously since then. Democratic leaders and strategists breathed a deep sigh of relief when he decided not to seek a full term in the Senate this year.

But the Senate race in Illinois has been anything but pretty, and both major party candidates, Rep. Mark Kirk (R) and state Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias (D), have been hit by unwelcome revelations and have stumbled at various times during the campaign. Despite the Democratic lean of Illinois, Kirk, a political moderate, is now the slight favorite.

Now, though, further confusion could ensue. Some experts say state law dictates that a special election needed to be held to fill Obama’s Senate vacancy. A Chicago alderman won a federal lawsuit arguing that the state was obligated to call a special election and has improperly ignored the statute. State officials have been hoping to avoid a special election in part because of the expense involved and also to avoid any confusion with the regular Senate election.

According to Illinois media, the appeals court on Thursday declined to rehear the case, agreeing with the argument that Burris’ appointment was only temporary. The court ordered a federal judge who had heard the original case to set the special election date, recommending that it be held on the same day as the Nov. 2 general election. The appeals court also said the political parties should have the option of designating their nominees without holding costly primaries.

A court hearing has been scheduled for Wednesday to sort out the details, but it now appears almost certain that a special election to fill the last two months of the Senate term will coincide with the general election. Burris told the Chicago Sun-Times last week that he would run in a special election if one were held. The Chicago Tribune reported that the state attorney general has not ruled out the possibility of further appeals to avoid the special election.

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) called the situation “a mess.”

“At this point, it’s in turmoil, uncertainty, and I’m afraid it’s going to create a lot of confusion for voters,” Durbin told WLS-TV in Chicago.