Can Republicans Take Obama's Senate Seat In 2010?

Can Republicans Take Obama's Senate Seat In 2010?

By Sean Trende - August 10, 2009

The waiting game is finally over. On July 9, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan announced that she would run for re-election as Attorney General, and would not run for the Senate seat previously held by Barack Obama and being vacated by his placeholder successor, Roland Burris. Businessman and RFK son Chris Kennedy has chosen not to run for Senate, though he may seek the Governor’s mansion.

This has all but ensured a showdown next fall between 33-year-old Democratic State Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias and five-term Republican Congressman Mark Kirk. Can Kirk win? The answer is a cautious “yes,” though it would take something of a perfect political storm for Kirk to succeed.


Had you asked a political observer thirty years ago whether an open Senate race in Illinois would be competitive, you’d likely have received a look normally reserved for those who walk off of UFO’s. Illinois has historically been one of the more politically competitive states in the United States.  To understand Kirk’s strength, and why he still has a tough row to hoe, we need to understand how this dynamic changed, and how Democrats came to dominate the state.

The following chart shows how Illinois as a whole has voted since the election of Abraham Lincoln, relative to the rest of the country. Results above zero mean that Illinois was more Republican than the rest of the country, while results below the line mean that Illinois was more Democratic than the country:



As you can see, from the Civil War through the early 20th Century, Illinois was consistently a few points more Republican than the rest of the country (the sharp dive we see in 1924, was because many normally Republican voters cast their ballots for Progressive Bob LaFollette; had we looked at the Democratic share of the overall vote instead of the Republican share of the two-party vote, we’d have seen no such movement). This changed with the Democrats’ nomination of Al Smith in 1928 drew white ethnics to the voting booth in droves; they kept voting, and from 1928 through 1976 the state was consistently at the center of American politics.

But beginning in 1980, the state began to inch steadily toward the Democrats. In the last five cycles, Illinois has been five or more points more Democratic than the country as a whole. What accounts for this shift?

To answer this, let’s break the state down into four parts. The first consists simply of Cook County: Chicago and its inner suburbs. The second consists of Chicago’s suburban and exurban counties, or its metropolitan statistical area; these counties are contained within the dark black line below.

For the final two divisions we’ll divide the state into two sections. The first consists of counties Abe Lincoln carried in 1860, depicted in red on the map below. These ancestrally Republican counties, which were settled by pioneers from Northern states, are largely in upstate Illinois, though there are a few scattered in southern Illinois. As you might guess, we also examine counties Stephen Douglas carried as a Northern Democrat in 1860. These counties, settled by Southerners, are largely in downstate Illinois, and are colored blue below.



Looking at the share of the vote these regions have cast since 1948, we can see that the shift toward the Democrats isn’t being caused by Republican areas of the state being crowded out by other growing areas. As the chart below demonstrates, the two rural divisions still cast roughly the same proportion of the statewide vote as they did in the 1940s -- about 35 percent. The growth of the suburban counties' vote share has come entirely at the expense of heavily Democratic Cook County.




The real story of political change in Illinois is revealed in the next chart:




As you can see, Illinois voters in both upstate and downstate rural Illinois are roughly where they were forty years ago. Interestingly, McCain’s best counties in the state were the counties that voted for Stephen Douglas 150 years ago, which is consistent with the Republican Party’s general surge in the Appalachian Diaspora during the 2008 election.

The real story is the decline of Republican performance in Metro Chicago and Cook County, beginning in 1980. Cook County contains a substantial suburban population; hence it was evenly divided between inner Chicago and its inner suburbs during the mid-Twentieth Century. It is the Republican Party’s deterioration in these suburban portions of Cook County and also in the outlying counties that have been most to blame for the party’s demise statewide.

So there are basically three options for a Republican hoping to win in Illinois: (1) Perform well in Chicago’s inner suburbs and collar counties; (2) Perform extremely well in the small city and small town counties carried by Lincoln and/or Douglas; or (3) some combination of these two.

The Candidates

Consider this map, comparing Greater Chicago’s Congressional districts in 1972 to Greater Chicago’s Congressional districts in 2008.




The vote for Congress has drifted steadily to the left in this region of the state. But you will notice the splotch of red in the Northeastern corner of the map. That district, the Tenth, voted overwhelmingly for Barack Obama for President, 61%-38%. It went for John Kerry 53%-47%, and for Al Gore by a similar margin. And yet at the same time, it continued electing Congressman Mark Steven Kirk in the face of high-quality opponents.

The Tenth straddles the Cook/Lake county line, with about half of the vote being cast in Cook County and half the vote cast in Lake county. The district itself is made up of some of Chicago’s toniest suburbs, places like Wilmette, Winnetka, Waukegan, Deerfield, New Trier, Arlington Heights, and Libertyville. The median income in the district was a whopping $72,000 in 2000, making it one of the richest districts in the country.

Kirk, a graduate of Cornell University and the London School of Economics, was elected in a close election in 2000 to succeed moderate Congressman Jonathan Edward Porter. Kirk won his primary by beating several candidates with great personal wealth through his intelligence, grasp of issues, and affable personality. Kirk followed Porter’s winning formula, which consisted of a generally conservative stance on economic issues, with a more moderate approach to social issues. Kirk’s ACU rating is generally in the 50s or 60s, while his Chamber of Commerce rating tends toward the 80s. Because of this, Kirk has endured a number of strong challenges, and survived. Indeed, he is one of only three Republicans in Democratic-leaning districts to survive strong challenges in 2006 and 2008.

In the general election, Kirk will face 33-year-old State Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias. Giannoulias was elected Treasurer in 2006 to succeed unsuccessful Republican gubernatorial candidate Judy Baar Topinka. He was the first Democrat to win the seat in over a decade, and was the youngest State Treasurer in the country (he was only 30 when elected). Giannoulias is the scion of a well-connected Chicago family. There is good that comes with these connections, as he can count on strong support for President Obama, and from the labor community. His early fundraising has been outstanding. But there is bad as well, as Giannoulias is reputed to have ties with Tony Rezko, and will certainly be portrayed as having ties to the Blagojevich Administration.

Still as a Democrat in a Democratic state, Giannoulias should be favored to win under normal circumstances.

How It Plays Out

Republicans won statewide races in the 1998 Senate race (against ethically-challenged Senator Carol Moseley Braun), as well as gubernatorial races in 1990, 1994, and 1998. As the charts below demonstrate (the other Senate races are not included because they were not competitive), no Republican has pulled off option 2 described above:  Winning by swamping Cook County with a strong showing downstate.  Instead, the key to Republican success has always been: Keep losses in Cook County to a minimum and have a strong showing in the suburbs. Improving GOP performance in the “Douglas” counties downstate provides an additional boost for GOP candidates today, which was not present twenty years ago, but it has never been enough to "seal the deal."






Can Kirk count on an improved performance in the suburban counties? The next two charts show the county-by-county decline in Republican performance from 1948-2008 in the suburban Chicago counties. As you can see, Lake County has suffered one of the steepest declines in Republican performance. The effect of this decline is amplified by the fact that Lake is the second most populous suburban county.






Having represented half of Lake County, as well as the wealthier portions of Cook County, Kirk can probably count on something of a bump in performance in the areas where a Republican needs a bump the most. Kirk's moderate stances on social issues and overall persona will likely play well; he won't easily be parodied as an ally of Southern religious conservatives.  Still, Giannoulias and the Democrats will likely attempt to portray Kirk as a Bush clone, and tarnish his moderate credentials. But Democrats tried this in 2006 and 2008, and Kirk still managed to win re-election with a decent margin against a well-funded, high-quality challenger.

On the other hand, Giannoulias’ ethnic background will likely play well in the working class white communities in southwestern Cook County. He may perform better there than a Downstater like Glenn Poshard did in 1998. This could somewhat offset Kirk's advantage in the northern suburbs.

The wild card is downstate Illinois. Note Blagojevich’s poor performance in the Douglas counties, even as he was winning the state by fairly wide margins. Blago has a lot going for him, but to Downstaters he appeared to be the consummate Chicago insider: ethnic name, Chicago congressman, liberal politics. Giannoulias will suffer from the same disability, which may boost Kirk’s performance in these downstate counties.  On the other hand, Kirk's moderate record won't draw downstaters to the polls in droves, and his moderate position on social issues may cause conservative Democrats to vote on economic issues, which isn't in Kirk's best interest.  Or, they may just stay home.

Polling to date has shown a close race; an April PPP poll had Giannoulias and Kirk tied, while DailyKos' poll had Giannoulias up 38%-30%.  While more Democrats were undecided than Republicans in the PPP poll, a similar number of liberals (30%) moderates (34%) and conservatives (23%) were undecided.

Kirk has the basic tools to perform well in the race: He is relatively popular for a Republican in a swing area of the state, he is smart and articulate, and he is facing a relatively inexperienced Chicago Democrat, who may be prone to missteps and easy definition. But Giannoulias is telegenic and is a fresh face in Chicago politics. And it should not be underestimated how furiously Obama and the Democrats will campaign for this seat; it will be the President’s Number One Senate priority.

Ultimately, on a level playing field, Giannoulias should still win this race, probably with 54 percent of the vote or so. But 2010 may well not be a level playing field for Democrats. If unemployment continues to worsen (and Friday’s unemployment report, read carefully, was not good news for the President’s party) and the economy as a whole seems languid, Kirk may be able to squeak out a win.


Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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