Identifying and analyzing emerging trends in campaigns and elections.

Is Illinois Another California?

In Senate on January 26, 2015 at 3:30 pm

Much of the early Senate political coverage has been devoted to the open California Senate race, but now the Illinois contest is about to make an equivalent amount of news.

For several weeks, speculation, not denied by her staff, that Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL-8) is seriously considering challenging Sen. Mark Kirk (R) came true last week when the congresswoman herself confirmed the sentiment. She had recently given birth towards the end of 2014 and had previously not been granting interviews.

Sen. Kirk, representing a highly Democratic state after his tight 48-46 percent win over then-state treasurer Alexi Giannoulius (D) in the Republican landslide year of 2010, later suffered a serious stroke that put him on a long road to recovery. The presidential year turnout model in a reliably Democratic state against a weakened Republican incumbent sets this race as the party’s best 2016 conversion opportunity in the nation.

Duckworth is the first female double-amputee of the Iraq War. She sustained severe injuries to both legs when an enemy rocket struck the helicopter she was co-piloting. After a long recuperation, she decided to embark on a career in public service. She challenged Rep. Peter Roskam (R-IL-6) in a marginal district in the heavily Democratic year of 2006. Backed as one of the strongest Democratic challengers in the nation that year, she still fell short, losing 51-48 percent.

After then serving as an Assistant Secretary at the Veterans Department for President Obama, Duckworth again ran for Congress in a re-drawn 8th Congressional District in 2012, drawing freshman Republican Joe Walsh as her opponent. Though the Democratic legislature drew the seat specifically for her, and Walsh had been a fluke winner in 2010, her victory, though strong (54 percent) was far from overwhelming. The same is true for her 2014 re-election percentage (56 percent) against an unknown Republican in a race that never became competitive. Though combined with a stellar resume, her historical vote performance has consistently lagged behind pre-election predictions.

Possibly seeing that she is not invincible even in Democratic primary, no less than three of her colleagues are also confirming that they, too, are looking at the possibility of entering the race to eventually challenge Sen. Kirk.

Representatives Robin Kelly (D-IL-2), Bill Foster (D-IL-11), and Cheri Bustos (D-IL-17) are all reportedly weighing their own chances for a senatorial bid. Though it is unlikely that all four will enter the March 2016 primary, it would be a very interesting match if they do. All four have different strengths, and each a path to victory.

Rep. Duckworth has a Cook County base, better statewide name ID than the rest, and a compelling story.

Rep. Kelly has a Chicago base and the opportunity of developing a strong African American constituency that has catapulted Democrats to primary victories in other similarly crowded fields.

Rep. Bustos may have the best record of this group of candidates. Defeating an incumbent, then-freshman Rep. Bobby Schilling in 2012 in a rural western Illinois district, she then scored a 56-44 percent re-match victory in last year’s Republican landslide. Though lacking a Chicago or Cook County constituency, she would have the possibility of uniting a downstate base significant enough to constitute a victory in a crowded, fractured candidate field.

Finally, as the only male in such a field with a Cook County base and a large political war chest, Rep. Foster could also make a credible case for charting a win in his own right.

Therefore, while the California race to succeed retiring Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) may be winnowing down to a defined number of strong candidates from both the northern and southern portion of the state, the Illinois Democratic battle seeking the strongest challenger for Republican Sen. Mark Kirk is beginning to simmer to a boil.

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