The cycle’s first primaries have come and gone - and so much for surprises, at least on the Democratic side. After weeks of brutal campaigning, Illinois voters chose their general election candidates. In the Senate race, Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias held on to his position as the early front-runner. In the Governor’s race, it appears that incumbent Pat Quinn will be able to hold on since he leads by one percentage point with just 0.8% still to report, though the contest might still head to a recount.
Yet, it is the Republican side that makes for a study of contrasts as to whether GOP primaries might knock the wind out of the party’s wave prospects. In the Senate race, a moderate Republican who just last June was one of conservative groups’ ultimate persona non grata coasted to an easy victory while in heavily blue IL-10, a conservative businessman upset a moderate state legislator that would have been better positioned to defend the open seat.
Republicans nominate Kirk for Senate, Dold for House
On June 27th, Rep. Mark Kirk was one of just 8 House Republicans to support the cap-and-trade bill; these congressmen provided the winning margin, since the legislation passed by a narrow 219-212 margin. Conservatives immediately vowed to punish the culprits. Yet, Kirk coasted to the GOP’s Senate nomination last night. While the 58% he received is thoroughly unimpressive given the caliber of his opponents, the silence of conservative groups and figures who were all over NY-23 and are now going all-out in the Crist-Rubio contest was deafening. After all, Kirk’s main challenger (businessman Pat Hughes) was no less credible than Doug Hoffman and he did reach out to politicians like Senator Jim DeMint.
There are obviously very good reasons for conservatives to give Kirk a pass: His candidacy is the main reason this Senate race is considered competitive. Kirk was able to survive in tough cycles in his blue-leaning district, so his ability to appeal to centrist voters and even some Democrats has been proven. Illinois is no Florida and Hughes is no Rubio, so working to defeat the congressman was a much graver blow to Republican electability.
Such considerations hardly stopped conservatives in NY-23, where many activists were quoted as saying they did not mind Bill Owens’s victory as long as Dede Scozzafava was defeated. Yet, Kirk is the second Republican in a row to benefit from a party-over-ideology reflex (conservatives rallied around Scott Brown despite the likelihood that he will position himself as a moderate senator), which could help reassure the GOP that the rise of Tea Partiers will not lead their candidates to be systematically Scozzafavad.
And yet, Republican voters also complicated their party’s hope of defending IL-10, the blue-leaning district Kirk is vacating to run for Senate.
IL-10 voted for Kerry by 6% and for Obama by 23%. To prevail, the Republican nominee looks he would need to duplicate Kirk’s ability to appeal to voters who typically vote Democratic and the GOP thought it had found such a contender in state Rep. Beth Coulson, who has a moderate reputation. Yet, businessman Bob Dold went after Coulson from the right and last night won by a surprisingly decisive margin.
Given the district’s leanings, this leaves Republicans at a disadvantage. Whether or not a red wave submerges Democrats elsewhere, Dold does not look like a good fit for this suburban Chicago district. Yet, the NRCC might ultimately be saved by the result of the Democratic primary, in which voters also chose their weaker general election candidate - albeit this is far more debatable and minor a point than the one regarding Dold’s victory over Coulson.
Indeed, IL-10’s Democratic nominee will be the party’s failed candidate against Kirk in the 2006 and 2008 cycles: Dan Seals beat out state Rep. Hamos by a narrow 49% t0 48% margin. While countless of Republicans in far more marginal districts fell, Kirk pulled it off on both occasions while Seals massively underperformed relatively to Barack Obama last year, leading to obvious questions as to whether nominating him for a third consecutive time might not cause the party trouble; whatever Seals’s qualifications, the bottom-line is that voters twice rejected him and that these defeats left him with far high negatives than Dold starts with.
A Coulson-Seals match-up might have been a carbon copy of the Kirk-Seals races, with the disappearance of the GOP’s incumbency advantage compensated with the shift in the national environment. But against Dold, Seals starts as the slight favorite. Needless to say, Democrats need this seat as a cushion against the GOP’s probably big gains elsewhere.
Democrats choose Giannoulias
Chicago Inspector General Dave Hoffman started his relentless attacks Giannoulias back in the fall and he was helped last week by reports that federal regulations were clamping down on Broadway Bank, the bank owned by Giannoulias’s family at which he himself worked as a manager. Yet, it did not prove enough to bloody the state’s Treasurer: He prevailed 39% to 34%, a narrower margin than was expected last fall but enough to move him to the general election.
Cheryle Jackson received a decent 20%, but her defeat eliminates one of the only candidates who could have ensured that the Senate contains at least one African-American come 2011. The maintenance of just that minimal level of diversity in the Senate now rests on the shoulders of Rep. Kendrick Meek.
In recent weeks, the conventional wisdom has been that Giannoulias could be Democrats’ weaker general election contender given the ethical questions that surround him. I wasn’t convinced Democrats had much to lose by nominating him until these questions took on a new dimension last week, though I still think that the state Treasurer is (very) arguably better positioned than Hoffman to ensure the Democratic base and minority voters turn out.
In any case, I suspect that the general election result is far more likely to depend on the national environment than on the identity of the Democratic nominee: Since we already knew there will be no incumbent, Republicans will not be able to turn the spotlight solely on an unpopular opponent and will have to hope that independents and moderate Democrats are willing to turn their back to Barack Obama. Can the president carry Giannoulias across the finish line in his home-state?
GOP also chooses its challengers in IL-8, IL-11 and IL-14
All eyes were also on IL-14, where Ethan Hastert was looking to take on Rep. Bill Foster. Yet, the former Speaker’s son fell 4% short against state Senator Randall Hultgren. My debatable sense is that this is the better result for the GOP since Hastert’s family ties opened him to obvious Democratic attacks while Hultgren already has a base and electoral experience. Yet, it remains to be seen how much the NRCC prioritizes IL-14 (the district did vote for Obama) so Hastert’s ties to national Republicans could have been helpful to the GOP. Overall, IL-14 is probably Democrats’ most (only?) endangered Illinois seat.
In IL-11, freshman Rep. Debbie Halvorson might have found herself in a tougher race if the state’s filing deadline was not so early but Republicans were left with an underwhelming list of candidates. Yet, the winner of yesterday’s 5-way primary is the one candidate who seemed to at least attract the NRCC’s attention: Air Force veteran Adam Kinzinger. His fundraising strength also suggests that Republicans are paying attention to the district; Halvorson enters the general election favored, but we’ll keep an eye on this race.
IL-08 is another district in which Republicans failed to recruit a candidate capable to take advantage of a red wave and the GOP nomination yielded a candidate who is even more of a question mark than was expected; in a recent overview of the race by The Daily Herald, Joe Walsh chose to highlight primarily his desire to reform “ill-conceived” Medicare and Social Security, which is hardly a winning issue. For him to defeat Rep. Melissa Bean would require a red wave so huge that it remains at this point hard to envision.
Since both gubernatorial primaries are too close to call, it would be futile to analyze the results before knowing for sure who the nominees will be. While Governor Pat Quinn seems likely to hold on to his lead over Treasurer Dan Hynes on the Democratic side, state Senator Bill Brady’s 500-vote lead (with 99% precincts reporting) in the GOP primary is very fragile since the remaining votes were cast in Cook County, where Brady is very weak.