Republicans eye high-profile US Senate races

Republicans eye high-profile US Senate races

By Hal Weitzman in Chicago

Published: January 29 2010 17:11 | Last updated: January 29 2010 17:11

Congratulatory signs in the streets after Barack Obama wins 2008’s US elections
Congratulatory signs in the streets after Barack Obama wins 2008’s US elections. The president’s former Senate seat in Illinois is under threat

 

As a candidate, Barack Obama was fond of saying that there were no “red states” or “blue states” – only the United States. His adage may be starting to prove itself, although not quite as he intended.

When the Republicans won Ted Kennedy’s former Senate seat in Massachusetts this month, they demonstrated they could win even in one of the most Democratic or “bluest” states. Now the Grand Old Party is focused on another prize – Mr Obama’s former Senate seat in Illinois.

“For the first time in a long time, the Republicans have a good chance of winning this Senate seat,” says Paul Green, a professor of policy studies at Roosevelt University in Chicago.

The Illinois race is part of a larger national trend. Capitalising on the anger and frustration voters expressed in Massachusetts, Republicans are targeting a string of high-profile seats they see as vulnerable in the mid-term elections in November.

Obama and the GOP

 

Among them are Vice-President Joe Biden’s former Senate seat in Delaware and the Nevada seat occupied by Harry Reid, the Democratic Senate leader. The GOP’s aim is not only to gain strength on Capitol Hill but also to embarrass the Obama administration.

Illinois will come into focus on Tuesday, when the state holds the US’s first primaries to select candidates for the mid-terms. The Senate hopefuls are chasing a position that has already come to national attention: in 2008, Rod Blagojevich, the former governor of Illinois, allegedly tried to sell the seat . He was subsequently impeached and is due to stand trial for corruption in June.

The ensuing brouhaha is one reason the Democrats may lose in Illinois, where no Republicans hold statewide office. The state’s unemployment level is also well above the national average. Moreover, the financial woes that have hit many US states are acute in Illinois, whose budget crisis is second only to California.

“Massachusetts was a national referendum. In Illinois, it’s going to be focused on the local issues – corruption and this financial mess,” says Pat Brady, chairman of the state Republican party.

The Republicans are blessed with a strong candidate: Mark Kirk, a five-term Congressman and Naval officer still active in the reserves (he returned this month from his second tour of duty in Afghanistan). Mr Kirk is all but certain to win Tuesday’s GOP primary.

A moderate with appeal to the independents who polls suggest are wavering in their support for the Democrats, he has alienated the more conservative “Tea Party” wing of his party. Last year he tried unsuccessfully to secure backing from Sarah Palin, the former vice-presidential candidate and erstwhile governor of Alaska, when she was in Chicago. Nevertheless, faced with the enticing prospect of humiliating Mr Obama, the Tea Party-goers are likely to support him.

The Democratic field is more fragmented. Alexi Giannoulias, the state’s 33-year-old treasurer, leads in the polls. A basketball buddy and protégé of Mr Obama, Mr Giannoulias has tied himself closely to the president, whom he mentions frequently in speeches.

He concedes the Democrats may find the going difficult in November “given the mood, given how people feel about Washington”, but says he is hoping to concentrate on the issues. That seems unlikely, given that he is already looking beyond the primaries and attacking Mr Kirk’s record of taking contributions from corporations.

Although Mr Obama endorsed Mr Giannoulias’s campaign for treasurer, he was not the president’s top choice to run in the primary. In a sign that he was concerned about Illinois long before the special election in Massachusetts, the president summoned Lisa Madigan, the state’s attorney-general, to the White House last year and asked her to run for the seat.

She declined and several other high-profile Democrats have also ruled themselves out.

Mr Giannoulias has baggage as the scion of a Chicago banking family that lent money to both Michael Giorango, a convicted bookmaker and prostitution-ring promoter, and Tony Rezko, a convicted fundraiser for Mr Blagojevich.

He has also been accused of mismanagement of a pre-paid college tuition fund he re-organised.

Although there is no suggestion of wrongdoing or illegality, this has been useful fodder for Mr Giannoulias’s main rivals but Mr Giannoulias is the only Democrat who can beat Mr Kirk, according to a survey released this week by Public Policy Polling.

Commentators highlight that it might not be such a surprise if the Republican wins. The seat was held by a Republican immediately before Mr Obama. When Mr Blagojevich was elected in 2002, he was the first Democratic governor in three decades.

But that will be scant consolation to the Democrats anxiously surveying the public fractious mood.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2010. Print a single copy of this article for personal use. Contact us if you wish to print more to distribute to others.

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