GOP Groups Not Spending on Sen. Kirk in Illinois

GOP Groups Not Spending on Sen. Kirk in Illinois
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Republican outside groups have spent tens of millions of dollars in competitive Senate races this year, eager to protect GOP incumbents in a difficult cycle with the chamber’s majority up for grabs. But as that spending has ramped up in recent weeks, next to none has gone to bolster Illinois Sen. Mark Kirk, widely viewed as the most vulnerable of them all.  

Through the entire 2016 cycle, the outside spending on Kirk’s behalf represents just a fraction of the total money spent on GOP incumbents, and significantly lags behind the amount spent to back his colleagues in tough races. And as groups strategize and lock in future spending, so far there appear to be no plans to put big money behind the Illinois lawmaker’s re-election campaign against Democratic Rep. Tammy Duckworth.

For some of these Republican groups, it’s a simple calculation: Illinois is a deeply blue state in presidential election years, and with so many other competitive races in battleground states, investing there may not be the best use of resources.

“It is an enormously difficult state to be a Republican running statewide in a presidential year,” said one party operative who works for an outside group and who requested anonymity to discuss strategy. “I think you could bring Abraham Lincoln back from the dead to try for the Senate seat and he would have trouble in 2016, or he would be a decided underdog in 2016.”

Just over $1.1 million has been spent by Democratic and Republican outside groups in Illinois – divided about evenly on each side of the aisle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. That is low compared to other states Republicans are defending: $13 million in Ohio, nearly $6 million in New Hampshire, almost $8 million in Pennsylvania and $4 million in Wisconsin. The majority of the outside spending in all of those races has come from GOP groups. Republicans hold a scant four-seat majority in the upper chamber.

Kirk’s campaign pushed back on the narrative there has been a lack of investment in his re-election. Eleni Demertzis, a spokeswoman for Kirk, said in a statement to RCP that Duckworth will be badly damaged by a trial in August at which she faces accusations of misconduct from her time leading the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs. Demertzis said if anyone would be expected to spend outside money in the race, it would be Democrats backing Duckworth ahead of the trial, and she suggested the lack of GOP outside money is because Kirk faces a flawed Democratic opponent. 

“Given that the race is tied and that news coverage about Rep. Duckworth's upcoming trial on ethics violations has blanketed the airwaves, it comes as no surprise that Democrat groups are hesitant to spend while Republican groups will allow the self-inflicted collapse of one of the DSCC's top recruits to continue unabated,” Demertzis said.

Matt McGrath, a spokesman for Duckworth’s campaign, said it’s never easy to beat an incumbent senator, though he called Kirk “lightly regarded” in Illinois. He added that the challenger is prepared for a “long, tough, and expensive fight” and he pointed out that Duckworth’s campaign has outraised the incumbent at a grassroots level despite having a contested primary. 

"The fact remains, however, that Kirk is one of Wall Street’s most reliable votes and has long benefited from his relationships with deep-pocketed donors and outside money,” McGrath said. “So we don’t expect his lackluster campaign to underperform forever, and we will be ready.”

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a major Republican outside group, spent $550,150 on advertisements backing Kirk last July. But since then, the organization has spent more than $1 million backing incumbent Sens. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Rob Portman of Ohio, or attacking their challengers. It has also spent hundreds of thousands in Arizona for Sen. John McCain and in the Nevada race to replace outgoing Democratic Leader Harry Reid. It hasn’t added any new spending backing Kirk.

In a Wall Street Journal report in May on the Chamber of Commerce’s Senate plans, an official named those states, plus Wisconsin and Sen. Ron Johnson, as places it expected to spend significant money to back GOP incumbents in the near future. Kirk and Illinois were left off the list.

“Senator Kirk is a proven champion for American Free Enterprise. We appreciate his 88% voting record with the US Chamber of Commerce,” National Political Director Rob Engstrom told RCP in a statement. He declined to elaborate, saying it’s consistent with the chamber’s policy not to discuss internal strategy.  

One Nation, a group aligned with the Koch brothers, did spend $125,000 in Illinois a year ago, but that was less than half the amount spent on that same ad campaign in four other battleground states. Since then, the group has disbursed more than $1 million in each of four other competitive Senate races, and more than $700,000 in Missouri and North Carolina, but no additional money has gone to Illinois.

Other groups are even less likely to invest significant funds in the Prairie State race. Freedom Partners Action Fund, another Koch brothers-aligned group, has spent more than $15 million on Senate races in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Nevada, most of it on advertising in May, according to Federal Elections Commission records. The Koch network has also reserved $30 million in future ad spending in those races, and there are plans for spending in Florida, the Washington Post reported. Illinois is not on the list.

The Koch network tends to back candidates who have a similar policy focus, which may make it difficult for Kirk to attract spending help from those groups. Freedom Partners Action Fund opposed renewing the Export-Import Bank when its federal authorization expired last year, for example, while Kirk took the lead in the Senate on keeping it alive. Other issues, including his support of major omnibus spending legislation last year, make it unlikely that the network will spend on Kirk’s behalf.

And the Club for Growth, another major GOP outside group, said last fall that Kirk didn’t make its list of GOP candidates to support. The organization cited Johnson in Wisconsin; Toomey in Pennsylvania; Rep. Ron DeSantis, who’s running in the Florida GOP primary; and Rep. Marlin Stutzman, who lost the Indiana primary last month. Dave McIntosh, the Club for Growth’s president, told Politico he doesn’t see a path to victory for Kirk.

“That’s going to be a tough Senate seat for any Republican candidate to win in the fall,” he said.

Still, that’s not to say that GOP groups won’t reverse course and back Kirk in a major way as the general election nears. Most of the states receiving significant early spending are presidential battlegrounds, meaning advertising will be much more expensive in the fall and it will be harder to shape the down-ballot races late in the race. The GOP operative from an outside group said if there is a big money push for Kirk, it likely wouldn’t come until later.

And Democratic groups have so far barely spent money boosting Duckworth. VoteVets, a major Democratic group, spent just over $600,000 on ads in Illinois earlier this year, roughly the same as GOP spending.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has reserved $2 million to spend in Illinois this fall, a fraction of nearly $50 million reserved for competitive races across the country. Senate Majority PAC, a major Democratic group with ties to Reid, has reserved more than $25 million for the fall, but none of it is slated for Illinois.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee has reserved around $27 million for fall ad buys, and none of it is for Illinois.

Alleigh Marre, a spokeswoman for the NRSC, said in an email that is just an initial round of reservations, and she attacked Duckworth on a number of issues, including her upcoming trial.   

“As her August whistleblower retaliation trial looms, Tammy Duckworth is going to need all of the help that she can get in spinning her failed record in Springfield and her ineffectiveness in Washington,” Marre said. “Try as they might, there is no dollar amount that special interest groups can spend to disassociate Duckworth from Rod Blagojevich or from her shameful actions as his handpicked appointee.”

McGrath, the Duckworth spokesman, called the reference to the trial a “snide, desperate and dishonest attack.”

While the DSCC has reserved money in Illinois, Democrats are doubtful they will have to spend significantly in the state. Duckworth has outraised Kirk in each of the last three fundraising quarters. Kirk had $3.2 million in the bank at the end of the last FEC filing deadline in March, while Duckworth had just over $4 million.

A Democratic strategist from an outside group, who requested anonymity, pointed to a poll that Kirk’s campaign released in April showing him losing by three percentage points as evidence the incumbent “doesn’t have much of a path to victory.”

“When your own internals have you losing to a challenger, you're consistently getting outraised and you're running in a state that is overwhelmingly blue in presidential years, it's tough to argue otherwise with a straight face,” the strategist said.

Still, both Democrats and Republicans caution that it’s possible the race may change significantly before November. In particular, Republicans point to Duckworth’s trial and argue that if the court rules against her, it could attract new outside funds.

“A lot of bad news coverage, the information flow is strong on that and her image takes a dive. That could change things,” the GOP strategist said, calling the trial a potential “x-factor” for Kirk’s campaign.

James Arkin is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at jarkin@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @JamesArkin.

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