Kirk looks likely to be one termer as senator
by RUSS STEWART
There are two kinds of U.S. senators, those who get re-elected and those who are flukes, also known in Washington as "one term wonders." Mark Kirk of Illinois is just that.
There is virtually no doubt that incumbent Republican Kirk, who was first elected in 2010, will lose to Democratic U.S. Representative Tammy Duckworth (D-8) in November. The most recent polling, conducted by GS Strategy Group in late March, shows him behind Duckworth 42.7 percent to 39.6 percent, with 18 percent of voters undecided. For an incumbent senator, those numbers are beyond unacceptable, beyond horrific, and beyond repair. An incumbent with less than 50 percent support is deemed in danger, and an incumbent under 40 percent is deemed embalmed.
The benefits accruing to a sitting senator are awesome. There is the ability to make news anytime, anywhere. There is the ability to sponsor legislation which curries favor with specific special interests, which even if not passed, has a quid pro quo. There is the ability, for senators on the right committees, to raise $500,000 to $1 million annually from lobbyists. Hanging over it all, is the threat that if senators are re-elected without the special interest’s donation, they will be in a position to exact some punishment.
Of course, with a 6-year term, a first-term senator has 5 years to travel the state, champion salable issues, get television face time, solidify his or her base, raise a couple million dollars, and deter credible second-term opposition. How can anybody lose?
But they do. First, there can be a scandal or a succession of poor judgments. Second, there can be an opposition party "wave," which buries the incumbent and the incumbent’s party. Third, there can be a well funded quality or celebrity opponent. Fourth, there can be the incumbent’s identification with an unpopular issue or an unpopular presidential candidate (like Donald Trump), either directly or indirectly. Fifth, the state may just be demographically incompatible, meaning that it is so lopsidedly antagonistic to the incumbent’s party that the incumbent, who won in a fluke, cannot win again. Sixth, the incumbent is just a bad fit and failed to connect with the voters, or is just an insufferable lightweight.
Kirk, age 57, suffered a stroke in 2012. He has partially recovered, but his mobility is limited. His campaign events and appearances must be scripted. Even in the 2010 contest, Kirk came across as bland and uninspiring; now he’s more so. Kirk won in 2010 because his Democratic opponent was flawed and statewide turnout was low. In his years as a senator, he has made no dent in the public consciousness, has no solid demographic or geographical base, and has not raised the $3 million he needs to win.
The latest federal disclosures show Kirk raised $10,030,786 during the current election cycle, and Duckworth raised $7,787.950.
To understand Kirk’s predicament, a review of some past "one-term wonders" is appropriate.
Carol Moseley Braun (D-Ill). Braun was Illinois’ senator from 1992 to 1998, the first African American of her party and the first woman to hold the post. She beat incumbent Alan Dixon in the Democratic primary, and she won the election by 504,396 votes, getting 53.3 percent of the vote. With a base in Chicago, huge support among black voters and great appeal to women, she had a lifetime seat, but she bungled it. She saw her job as an entitlement, not an opportunity. She split with her siblings a timber royalty owed to her nursing home mother, which was due Medicaid, hobnobbed with a Nigerian dictator, and spent $281,000 on travel, flying around the world with her fiance, a registered agent of Nigeria, among other oversights. She thought she need not be accountable. The goodwill she had in 1992 dissipated by 1998. Republican Peter Fitzgerald beat her by 98,545 votes, her total declining from 2,631,229 votes in 1992 to 1,610,496 in 1998 — a drop of more than one million votes.
George Murphy (R-Calif). Had not Murphy, an aging Hollywood song-and-dance man, of mediocre talent, been elected California’s senator in 1964, there would have been no Ronald Reagan candidacy for governor in 1966. Murphy not only broke a glass ceiling, which presumed that all actors were just parrots, but also beat the late John Kennedy’s press secretary, Pierre Salinger. Murphy won by 216,643 votes in the same election that Lyndon Johnson carried the state by 1,292,769 votes, an amazing achievement, as more than 500,000 Californians voted for Johnson but against Salinger. This is one of history’s most noteworthy "but fors." Murphy’s win gave Reagan, another aging actor, credibility, and later begat Arnold Schwarzenegger. Celebrity sells.
But then Murphy was afflicted with throat cancer, and it was disclosed that he had been on Technicolor’s payroll while in the Senate. That "scandal" was fatal. He lost in 1970 by 618,941 votes to Democrat U.S. Representative John Tunney, a semi-celebrity and the son of the champion boxer.
John Tunney (D-Calif). After beating Murphy, Tunney, who was a roommate of Ted Kennedy’s in law school, embarked on a career of breathtaking inconsequentiality and vapidity. The movie "The Candidate," starring Robert Redford as a dense but ever-smiling Senate aspirant, reportedly was based on Tunney. Voters caught on quickly. In 1976, former San Francisco State College president S.I. Hayakawa, who won fame by tearing the wires out of a sound truck during a student demonstration, beat Tunney by 246,111 votes. "Lightweights" don’t last.
James Buckley (R-C-NY): It is contemporarily absurd to use the word "conservative" in conjunction with New York, but the historical fact remains that in 1970 New York elected a Conservative senator. James Buckley, the brother of the conservative columnist, running on a pro-Nixon, law-and-order platform, made history, getting 2,288,190 votes on the Conservative Party line, to the 2,171,232 for the Democrat and the 1,434,472 for the Republican-Liberal candidate. Buckley was 1970’s Donald Trump, the repository of votes from Nixon’s so-called "silent majority." Buckley got a stunning 39 percent of the vote.
However, by 1976 times and issues had changed, and Nixon was gone. Buckley got 2,525,139 votes, more than in 1970, but centrist Democrat Daniel Patrick Moynihan got 3,238,511 votes, and Jimmy Carter won New York 3,389,558-3,100,791. Buckley was a fluke, and he ran 550,000 votes behind Gerald Ford.
Robert Taft Jr. (R-Ohio). There is political "royalty" in certain states, as with Stevenson in Illinois, LaFollette in Wisconsin, Kennedy in Massachusetts, Byrd in Virginia and Taft in Ohio. Those families have produced skilled, trustworthy public officials for nearly a century. They are unbeatable, as their surname carries all, but Taft, the grandson of a president and the son of a senator, managed to bungle his 1976 re-election. His problem was lassitude and laziness. He thought he got his seat by primogeniture and would keep it forever.
In 1964 Taft, who was then Ohio’s congressman at large, was thought to be a lock to beat incumbent Democrat Stephen Young, who won a "fluke" election to the Senate in 1958, but Barry Goldwater lost the state by 1,027,466 votes and Taft lost to Young by 16,827 votes. Young retired after that term, and Taft won in 1970 over parking garage millionaire Howard Metzenbaum by 70,420 votes. Taft lost their 1976 rematch by 115,880 votes, running 191,222 votes behind Gerald Ford. What did this guy do for 6 years? He never gave voters a reason to vote for him.
John Sununu (R-NH): Sununu’s father was a New Hampshire’s governor and George Bush’s presidential chief of staff. Sununu won 227,229-207,478 over Democratic governor Jeanne Shaheen in 2002, but he established no perceptible image. In 2008, an anti-Bush, anti-Republican "wave" year, Shaheen beat Sununu 358,438-314,403. Obama carried the state 384,826-316,534. The presidential vote coincided with the Senate vote.
George Allen (R-VA): The son of the Washington Redskins coach, Allen spearheaded a Republican resurgence in Virginia, serving as governor from 1993 to 1997 and as senator, defeating two-termer Chuck Robb in 2000. However, 2006 was a Democratic "wave" year, and Allen made some ethnic gaffes. He lost by 9,329 votes, and his 2012 comeback was a dismal failure.
So who does Kirk most resemble? Probably Sununu, Taft and Tunney. He’s bland and boring, and he has no political base. When Kirk was the North Shore 10th District’s congressman from 2000 to 2010, he did a spiffy job of entrenching himself. The district was overwhelmingly white, socially liberal and fiscally conservative, with a large Jewish population, so all Kirk had to do was go with the flow and be adamantly pro-Israel. He also had to satisfy only 650,000 constituents, not 12.8 million.
In 2010 the state’s Senate election was a "choice" between Kirk and Alexi Giannoulias, the state treasurer, who had many flaws. Kirk won 1,778,698-1,719,478 getting 48.0 percent of the vote in a turnout of 3.7 million, with two minor candidates on the ballot. Turnout in November will be over 5 million. Any election with an incumbent is a referendum on that incumbent, but Kirk’s identity and name recognition is so nebulous and minimal that people have no reason either to vote for him or against him. The Kirk-Duckworth contest is an afterthought, as all attention will focus on Trump-Clinton. To win, Kirk needs at least 15 to 20 percent of the Clinton voters to pick him over Duckworth. That’s just not going to happen.
Duckworth is as bland and lackluster as Kirk, but she is a decorated war veteran. She is a wholly owned subsidiary of Dick Durbin and Mike Madigan, and she has ties to Rod Blagojevich, but Hillary Clinton will win Illinois by more than 500,000 votes. Kirk, as they say, is as good as gone.
Send e-mail to russ@russstewart. com or visit his Web site at www. russstewart.com.