‘Undecideds’ loom large in Kirk-Duckworth race





by RUSS STEWART

This week, two analyses, of the persisting inability of Tammy Duckworth to "put away" the U.S. Senate race and of the Republicans’ surprising persistence in six Illinois House races despite huge funding of Democrats by House Speaker Mike Madigan.

Kirk vs. Duckworth. Usually, a month from any election, there is a discernable trend line. One candidate is fading, the other is beginning to surge, and the undecided voters are breaking, which is causing the surge.

Not this year in the Illinois Senate contest. Both candidates are stagnating, and their trend lines are amazingly flat. Incumbent Republican Mark Kirk can’t even reach 40 percent in the polls, which means that he’s not fading, but that he may have already hit his ceiling. However, Duckworth is doing barely better, she has run an insipid campaign, and she barely reaches 40 percent.

The Emerson poll published on Sept. 22 had Duckworth up 41-39 percent. The Loras poll published on Sept. 20 had Duckworth up 41-36 percent. A GS Strategy Group poll published in late March had Duckworth up 43-39 percent. Despite a deluge of television ads, costing each campaign about $2 million, there has been no movement in 6 months. Democratic strategists in Washington, as well as Duckworth’s mentor, U.S. Senator Dick Durbin, are perplexed. They can’t understand why Duckworth is not pulling away.

Kevin Artl, Kirk’s campaign manager, puts an optimistic spin on the senator’s abysmal poll numbers. "We’re within the margin of error," he said, which is plus or minus 5 percent. That means that Kirk and Duckworth both could be as low as 35 percent or as high as 45 percent.

Actually, both candidates are within the "margin of disaster." More than 60 percent of the electorate are disinclined at this time to vote for Kirk, who has been a senator since 2010, and slightly less than 60 percent are disinclined to vote for Duckworth, who has been a U.S. representative since 2012. "She’s under-performing," Artl said of Duckworth. However, Kirk is over-underperforming.

According to the polls, nearly 20 percent of Illinois voters are undecided in the Kirk-Duckworth race, a phenomenally high number. Normally by Oct. 1 undecideds are at 10 percent, and they begin to break after Oct. 15. Both candidates have compelling personal stories, have overcome physical disabilities, and are veterans, likable, well funded and reasonably well known, but both have failed to create any sense of excitement or commitment among the voters. What’s happening?

First, the contest is not registering because it’s not deemed important. A Sept. 30 Fox News poll showed approval of Congress at 18 percent and disapproval at 75 percent. A Sept. 23 Marist poll has 59 percent of the respondents declaring that America is on the "wrong track," and 35 percent saying that the country is on the "right track." Whether Kirk or Duckworth is senator is inconsequential. Both are insiders. Nothing will change.

Second, the polarizing presidential race has taken the oxygen out of every down-ballot race. Voters have serious misgivings about both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, but more about Trump, whom they consider a phony and a liar, while Clinton is deemed dishonest and deceitful. Voters will turn out in droves to vote against one of them, not for one of them. Instead of an insider-versus-outsider choice, the election is now a referendum on Trump.

Clinton is up 8 to 13 points in Illinois, but only at around 45 percent. Trump is under 40 percent, with undecideds around 15 percent. The Fox poll had it 43-40-8-4 nationally for Clinton, Trump, Libertarian Gary Johnson and Green Jill Stein, respectively. In 2012 the Obama-Romney total vote was just under 99 percent of turnout. In November the total Clinton-Trump vote could be as low as 95 percent. Where will those Johnson and Stein votes go down-ballot?

More critical is where the Clinton and Trump voters will go for senator. Artl said that Kirk needs to run 4 to 5 percent ahead of Trump, which means that 10 to 12 percent of the Clinton voters need to opt for Kirk over Duckworth, along with 100 percent of the Trump voters and half of the Johnson-Stein voters. Inasmuch as Kirk has declared he will not vote for Trump, some Trumps supporters may return the favor. Duckworth will win if she gets 91 to 95 percent of the Clinton vote. Kirk will lose if Trump is under 40 percent. Duckworth will lose if Clinton is under 45 percent and Trump is over 40 percent.

Artl said that Kirk is an "independent fighter" who "bucks his party." Kirk supports gun control, abortion rights and a vote on Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland, and he won’t vote for Trump. Kirk is "over-performing," according to Artl, who said that internal polls show him getting 28 percent of the vote in Chicago, higher than the normal Republican 20 percent. To win statewide, a Republican needs to lose Cook County by less than 400,000 votes and win Downstate and the Collar Counties by slightly more. In 2010 Kirk lost Cook County by 456,722 votes but won elsewhere by 59,220 more. Kirk has raised $11,321,067, while Duckworth has raised $10,115,839.

Given Duckworth’s "war hero" status and the fact that she lost parts of three limbs when her helicopter crashed in Afghanistan, and given Kirk’s 2011 stroke and his valiant battle to recover, the race has been notably without negativity. Criticism would be counter productive. Kirk mentions that a lawsuit against Duckworth when she was the state veterans affairs director was settled for $26,000. Kirk can’t be called a "Trump Republican." Artl said that the "inside.gov" Web site called her one of the "least effective" representatives and that she votes with Nancy Pelosi "94 percent of the time."

Neither candidate has given the public a reason to vote for them or against their opponent. Given Illinois’ Democratic leanings, that makes Duckworth the uninspiring winner by about 300,000 votes, while Clinton tops Trump by 500,000.

Madigan vs. Rauner. The governor would love to tweak the speaker by busting his 71-47 super majority, and he is going to do it. Five Democratic incumbents are beatable, along with one open seat. Rauner’s political action committees are pouring millions of dollars into those races, through the Illinois Republican Party, as are the unions and trial lawyers, through the Madigan-chaired Illinois Democratic Party.

63rd District (McHenry, Woodstock). Eighteen-year Democratic incumbent Jack Franks, professing disgust with Springfield, is retiring and running for McHenry County Board chairman. He is a longtime antagonist of Madigan and an anti-tax hike fiscal conservative, and he rendered Madigan’s super majority a nullity. The Democratic nominee is John Bartman, a farmer and a state official. The Republican candidate is tax attorney Steve Reick. The district went comfortably for Rauner in 2014. About $2 million will be spent. Outlook: Republican pickup.

76th District (West Kankakee, Streator, Bourbonnais). Longtime Democratic incumbent Frank Mautino, who won by 337 votes in 2014, stepped down to become the state auditor general. His replacement is Andy Skoog, a restaurant owner and the Peru village clerk. The Republican candidate is Jerry Lee Long, a truck driver and a teamster who lost to Mautino. Long is running as an "outsider," and Trump is not unpopular in the area. About $2 million will be spent. Outlook: Long wins.

79th District (East Kankakee, Coal City, Bradley). This is one of Madigan’s most gerrymandered districts, floating around Kankakee and Iroquois counties to snare every Democratic precinct possible. Democratic incumbent Kate Cloonen won by 91 votes in 2012 and by 122 votes in 2014, in each race spending more than $1 million of Madigan’s money. Cloonen’s previous opponent was a local police chief who had some baggage. This year the Republicans are running Lindsey Parkhurst, an attorney with some notoriety as a chef. Since it is woman versus woman, and since Parkhurst has no public record that can be attacked, Cloonen is hanging by a thread. Both parties will spend $1 million. Outlook: Edge to Parkhurst.
62nd District (Round Lake Beach, Grayslake, Wauconda). This used to be the Republican heartland. Now it is represented by Sam Yingling, a liberal Democrat who is openly gay. Yingling is a voracious fund-raiser, and he won by 4,016 votes in 2012 and by 4,917 votes in 2014, despite concerted Republican opposition. Republican 2014 loser Rod Drobinski is back for a rematch, and he will have $1 million at his back. Outlook: Tossup.
71st District (rural areas around Rock Island, Moline). Democrat Mike Smiddy, a union favorite, won in a 2012 upset, riding the crest of an Obama wave. A deluge of public sector union money, primarily from the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, got Smiddy re-elected in 2014 by 324 votes. Smiddy spent close to $3 million, much of it in the expensive Quad Cities media market, which penetrates Iowa, while the Republican candidate, a local prosecutor, spent $1.2 million. The Republican candidate is Tony McCombie, a woman who is Savannah’s mayor. The district has a Republican state senator. Outlook: Tossup.

117th District (far southern Downstate, Marion, Benton). The district is at the tip of Illinois, not far from Paducah, Ky. Incumbent John Bradley, who was first elected in 2002, is known as a gadfly, a showboater and publicity hound, and he spends more time in Springfield and Chicago than he does at home, laying a base for 2018 run for secretary of state. Bradley was an early and often critic of Rod Blagojevich. Unchallenged in past elections, Bradley is facing Benton Republican Dave Severin, a school board member. Trump is running well. Outlook: Bradley will win, but not by much.

My prediction: At least three and maybe four of those seats will flip.

Send e-mail to russ@russstewart. com or visit his Web site at www. russstewart.com.

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