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Could the GOP Pick Off a Senate Seat in Illinois?

By Greg Bobrinskoy

This past Friday marked a crushing blow to Roland Burris's chances of remaining the junior U.S. Senator from Illinois, as Gov. Pat Quinn (former Gov. Rod Blagojevich's replacement) called for Burris's resignation. In his speech Friday, Quinn stated that while he had known him for 37 years, Burris should never have accepted the job from Blagojevich. Furthermore, he said the Senate's current proceedings are too important for Burris to remain in with the degree of criticism currently surrounding him. Quinn referenced the barely-approved stimulus, stating "It needed every single vote in order to pass."

Also on Friday, President Obama's press secretary Robert Gibbs came just short of calling for his resignation, stating "The appointment of Senator Burris was based largely on the representations that he made, factual representations that he made to the people of Illinois through interviews and through his testimony to the impeachment committee... some of those stories seem to be at variance with what's happened."

Both statements arrived shortly after Burris seemed to reverse his positions after speaking with a panel of Illinois lawmakers. Burris had initially claimed he made no contacts with the Blagojevich administration before his appointment but told the panel that he indeed spoke with aides to Blagojevich and the governor's brother. Burris said money was requested from him but that he was unable to find contributors. Burris has not commented to the media about these revelations since. Illinois Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias and the state's U.S. Senator Dick Durbin have also joined in, with Durbin stating that Burris' "future in the Senate seat is in question", yet leaders in both parties have said the U.S. Senate will not look to expel him.

The Illinois Republican Party, which has been calling for a special election since the Blagojevich firestorm began, released a statement declaring, "Blagojevich Democrats created this embarrassing mess for the people of Illinois and as the party in power it is their responsibility to find a solution. We are pleased Governor Quinn chose to join Republicans in our call for a special election. [Illinois Democrats] have turned Illinois into a national embarrassment and the people deserve a vote to choose a senator they can have confidence in."

The Illinois Legislature is currently sifting through several proposals for how and when a special election would occur if it indeed does. One amendment would set a certain date for a vote after removing Burris from office. The Senate President has said he would support removing Burris meaning it may come down to the Speaker of the Illinois House. Quinn offered a proposal that the state legislature create a process for a special election to occur 115 days after a vacancy which the governor would fill with a temporary Senator until the election.

As to whether Republicans have a prayer at taking the President's former seat is debatable. Democrats currently hold every statewide office. They have dominated recent Presidential elections and have a large double-digit voter id advantage over Republicans. However, several names of potential Republican nominees for the seat have floated around as potentials if a special election occurs. The three most frequently referenced are Congressmen Mark Kirk (IL-10), Peter Roskam (IL-6), and John Shimkus (IL-19). Kirk, in particular, is a viable candidate, winning reelection by 6 points in a district that voted over 60 percent for Obama. Peter Roskam's Press Secretary, Matt Vriesema stood strong on the issue, telling RealClearPolitics, "We didn't have to be in this situation. They could've taken care of this months ago and had a special election then. Now we have an embattled Senator with no pull there, leaving our state with one Senator." Vriesema added that Roskam is taking a good look at the seat while Kirk's office could not be reached for comment.

Chairman of the Illinois Republican Party, Andy McKenna, told RCP, "We think Illinois deserves a special election. The people of Illinois have no confidence in Senator Burris. We have a strong Republican delegation, my guess is they all have interest and are looking into it and waiting for the process to play out." Whoever Republicans choose to run for the seat, the decision carries the added bonus of not jeopardizing their current House seat as the special election will not take place during their respective reelection bids.

One Illinois Republican operative stated that Republican hopes rest on the fact that "Democrats control everything. This is the mess they created. They called for a special election - Durbin started it - Republicans jumped on board, Democrats backed out, then Rod made the appointment. Republicans proposed the Senate removing him from office; there's the option of him resigning. Either way it's a disaster for the Democrats." He pointed to an Illinois statewide poll conducted on December 15 by McLaughlin & Associates which when asked if they'd support a candidate for office who endorsed Blagojevich for Governor in 2006 "even though he was already under investigation for 3 years", 70 percent of respondents said they would be less likely to vote for that candidate.

Republicans will clearly have enough ammunition to fill commercials should a special and general election occur for Obama's former seat. The question is whether Republicans can win in such a heavily Democratic state, one even prouder of that fact that their former Senator sits in the Oval Office.

Greg Bobrinskoy is an associate editor as RealClearPolitics.