Kirk must ‘over-perform’ to win 2016 re-election


"Performance" is a noun normally used by gearheads, stockbrokers and actors. It’s a deed or a feat that fulfills expectations.

In the 2016 U.S. Senate race in Illinois, such "Road Warrior" euphemisms as outperforming and underperforming are all the rage. Strategists for incumbent Republican Mark Kirk are convinced that his re-election prospects are not somewhere between hopeless and nonexistent.

The senator "will outperform" all other Republicans, including the ultimate 2016 presidential nominee, predicted Kevin Artl, Kirk’s campaign manager. Artl said that in every race that Kirk has run in a presidential year, he finished 5 to 8 points ahead of the Republican presidential candidate. He said that if the 2016 Republican presidential candidate gets 43 to 45 percent of the vote in Illinois, Kirk will win.

Democrats, of course, scoff at that scenario. The last Republican Senate candidate to win in a high-turnout presidential year was incumbent Chuck Percy in 1972. Illinois Republican Senate candidates were soundly thrashed in the presidential years of 1980, when Alan Dixon was elected, in 1984, when Percy was ousted, in 1992, when Carol Moseley Braun beat Dixon, in 1996, when Dick Durbin was elected, in 2004, when Barack Obama won, and in 2008, when Durbin was re-elected. In every one of those elections, the Republican presidential nominee ran well ahead of the senatorial nominee for Senate. Kirk must reverse that: he must be the "out-performer."

The Democrats face a potentially divisive primary between U.S. Representative Tammy Duckworth (D-8) and Andrea Zopp, the former Urban League chief executive officer. No endorsement was made in the race at the Cook County Democratic slatemaking. Black committeemen will be pushing Zopp. Duckworth will need to run up 2-1 margins in the Collar Counties and Downstate and get 40 to 45 percent of the vote in Cook County. "(Duckworth) will spend a lot of resources," Artl said. According to the June 30 Federal Election Commission filings, Duckworth had $2 million in campaign funds on hand, Zopp had $700,000, and Kirk had $3.3 million.

In 2010 Kirk beat the flawed Democratic candidate, state treasurer Alexi Giannoulias, 1,778,698-1,719,478 (with 48.1 percent of the vote), in a turnout of 3.8 million. Kirk’s margin of victory was 59,220 votes. Giannoulias won Cook County by 456,722 votes, but Kirk won the six Collar Counties by 168,510 votes and the 95 Downstate counties by 347,432 votes. In that year’s governor’s race, Democrat Pat Quinn won Cook County by 500,553 votes and Republican Bill Brady won the Collar Counties by 114,583 votes and Downstate by 354,146, losing to Quinn by 31,834 votes. The more moderate Kirk got 65,313 more votes than the conservative Brady.

Nevertheless, the 2016 election will be all about turnout. The higher the turnout, the worse the Republicans’ chances will be in Illinois. In 2008, with Obama on the ballot for president, statewide turnout was 5,450,527, and in 2012, with Obama running for re-election, turnout was 5,154,728. If the turnout in 2016 is more than 5 million, Kirk will have to get every vote he had in 2010 (1,778,698), plus another 725,000.

Here’s a recap of previous Senate contests in presidential years:

1948: Incumbent Republican Curly Brooks was thought to be a cinch, with Republican Tom Dewey prevailing in the presidential race. But Harry Truman won the state 1,994,715-1,961,103 (50.1 percent), and Paul Douglas upset Brooks 2,147,754-1,740.026. Douglas over-performed Truman by 153,039 votes, and Brooks under-performed Dewey by 221,077 votes.

1956: Republican Everett Dirksen won an upset in 1950, and with Dwight Eisenhower on the ballot for a second term, won easy re-election. Eisenhower carried the state 2,623,327-1,775,682 over former Illinois governor Adlai Stevenson. Dirksen won 2,307,352-1,949,883. Dirksen under-performed Eisenhower by 315,975 votes, but he still had a 357,469-vote plurality. Dirksen’s Democratic opponent over-performed Stevenson by 174,207 votes and still lost,

1960: In an enduringly controversial election, with the result still doubted by some, John Kennedy topped Richard Nixon 2,377,846-2,368,988, a margin of 8,858 votes. The Daley machine prevailed. Had Nixon won Illinois and Nevada, plus either Missouri or Minnesota (narrowly losing each), Kennedy would not have been president. Douglas was re-elected 2,530,943-2,093,846, over-performing Kennedy by 153,097 votes.

1968: Nixon won Illinois over Hubert Humphrey 2,174,774-2,039,814. Dirksen, who died in 1969, was re-elected, over-performing Nixon by nearly 250,000 votes.

1972: Percy beat Douglas in 1966, a non-presidential year, 2,100,449-1,678,147, a margin of 422,302 votes in a turnout of 3.8 million. Six years later, in a presidential year, Nixon faced the hapless George McGovern, and he carried Illinois 2,788,179-1,913,472; the Daley machine abandoned McGovern. Percy faced Roman Pucinski and buried him 2,867,078-1,721,031 (with 62 percent of the vote), over-performing Nixon by 78,899 votes in a turnout of 4.6 million. Pucinski under-performed McGovern by 192,441 votes. Percy had 766,629 more votes than in 1966.

1980: Incumbent Democrat Adlai Stevenson, who won Dirksen’s seat in 1970, retired. Secretary of State Alan Dixon trounced Republican Lieutenant Governor Dave O’Neal 2,565,302-1,946,296. In the presidential race, Ronald Reagan faced both Jimmy Carter and John Anderson and got 2,358,094 votes (50 percent of the total). O’Neal under-performed Reagan by 411,798 votes.

1984: After 18 years, voters had grown weary of Percy’s opportunistic liberalism. He was the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and a major player in Washington, but he had never built a base in Illinois, where he was rarely seen. After winning in 1972 by 1,146,047 votes, he saw that margin shrink to 250,524 votes in 1978. In 1984 Reagan crushed Walter Mondale 2,707,103-2,086,499 (with 56 percent of the vote), a margin of 620,604 votes. Downstate U.S. Representative Paul Simon spent $4.5 million to $5.4 million for Percy and scored a 2,397,165-2,308,039 upset, a margin of 89,126 votes in a turnout of 4.7 million. Percy under-performed Reagan by 399,064 votes, and Simon over-performed Mondale by 310,666 votes.

1992: It was the "Year of the Woman," and Carol Moseley Braun won a three-way Democratic primary with 38 percent of the vote, ousting Dixon. Dixon was re-elected by 980,133 votes in 1986. In the Clinton-Bush-Perot presidential race, Bill Clinton got 2,453,350 votes (50 percent of the total cast). Braun over-performed Clinton by 177,879 votes, and her opponent Rich Williamson over-performed Bush by 392,737 votes yet still lost to Braun 2,631,229-2,126,833 (with 53 percent of the vote), in a turnout of 4.8 million.

1996: Facing Bob Dole, there was little doubt that the president would again win Illinois, but the state still had a Republican governor and state senate. Simon retired, and it was conservative Republican Al Salvi versus Downstate U.S. Representative Dick Durbin for his seat. Ross Perot ran again, getting 8 percent of the vote. Clinton beat Dole 2,341,744-1,587,021 (with 54 percent of the vote), a margin of 754,723 votes. Durbin excoriated Salvi as an "extremist" and won 2,384,028-1,728,824 (with 56 percent of the vote), a margin of 655,204 votes in a turnout of 4.1 million. Durbin over-performed Clinton by 42,884 votes, and Salvi over-performed Dole by 141,803 votes.

2004: Incumbent Republican Peter Fitzgerald beat Braun in 1998, but he retired after one term. Barack Obama won the seven-candidate Democratic primary with 53 percent of the vote, and the election became moot after Republican nominee Jack Ryan withdrew after a sex scandal. The replacement was Alan Keyes of Maryland, and Obama won 3,595,299-1,389,850, getting 70 percent of the vote and winning by a margin of 2,205,449 votes in a turnout of nearly 5 million. In the Bush-Kerry presidential race, Kerry won 2,891,550-2,345,946 (with 55 percent of the vote). Obama over-performed Kerry by 703,749 votes. The 2004 election is the template, Artl said. "If the Republican presidential candidate can get 45 percent, Kirk can win," he said.

2008: With Obama atop the ticket, the Republicans abandoned the state. Obama defeated John McCain 3,419,348-2,031,179, getting 62 percent of the vote and winning by a margin of 1,388,167 votes in a turnout of 5.45 million. For senator, Durbin won 3,615,844-1,520,621 (with 68 percent of the vote), out-performing Obama by 196,496 votes.

2012: Seeking a second term, Obama’s home-state popularity was only slightly diminished. Obama defeated Mitt Romney 3,019,512-2,135,216, getting 58 percent of the vote and winning by a margin of 884,296 in a turnout of 5.15 million, 400,000 less than in 2008. Obama had 399,836 fewer votes in 2012 than 2008. There was no Senate race on the 2012 ballot.

A July poll had Duckworth leading Kirk 42-36 percent, with 22 percent undecided, an abysmal showing for an incumbent. Clearly Kirk, who has battled back from a 2012 stroke, is undefined. He has not established an image based on personality or issue identification. He has no base, no built-in vote. He won by 59,220 votes in 2010 against Giannoulias, losing Cook County by 456,722 votes and carrying the Collar Counties by 145,375 votes and Downstate by 370,567 votes. Kirk cannot lose Cook County by more than 500,000 votes in 2016.

Duckworth, who lost limbs in an Afghanistan helicopter crash, neutralizes Kirk’s naval reserve military background. Kirk is opposed to the Iran nuclear deal, while Duckworth is for it. Both support "Obamacare." Neither excites or energizes voters. Duckworth is slavishly pro-Obama. Both will be well funded.

In 2004, while he was a 10th District North Shore congressman, Kirk out-performed Bush by 42,957 votes, and in 2008 he out-performed McCain by 39,047 votes. In 2012 Duckworth, running in the newly created 8th District, under-performed Obama by 10,002 votes.

It was once presumed that Hillary Clinton would be the 2016 Democratic presidential nominee and that she would sweep her home state with Obama-like numbers. No longer. If the Republican presidential candidate reaches 45 percent of the vote, if the turnout is under 5 million, and if Kirk spends more than $25 million, he could win. Possible, but not probable.

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