Democrats Risk Losing Obama's Old Senate Seat Illinois voters head to the polls Feb. 2 to elect Senate nominees in the Republican and Democratic primaries. Democrats in Illinois could be in trouble because of missteps by the party along with a weak and untested Democratic field. Add to that a strong moderate running away with the nomination on the GOP side.

Democrats Risk Losing Obama's Old Senate Seat

Democrats Risk Losing Obama's Old Senate Seat

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

What could be worse for the White House and the Democrats than losing Ted Kennedy's Senate seat in Massachusetts? How about losing President Obama's old Senate seat in Illinois?

Former Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar (left) looks on as Senate candidate Mark Kirk campaigns in Springfield, Ill., last July. Seth Perlman/AP hide caption

toggle caption
Seth Perlman/AP

Former Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar (left) looks on as Senate candidate Mark Kirk campaigns in Springfield, Ill., last July.

Seth Perlman/AP

Many observers say that could happen next November, especially with Republicans likely to nominate five-term Rep. Mark Kirk, a moderate, in next Tuesday's Illinois primary.

Democrats in the race are campaigning as outsiders and underdogs, battling over who among them would be best able to capture the growing voter discontent.

Ever since Democrats fumbled the handoff of the Senate seat after Obama was elected president, Illinois Republicans have been hoping to force a turnover.

They want to take advantage of former Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich's arrest for allegedly trying to sell the seat for personal gain, and his controversial appointment of current seatholder Roland Burris.

Following last week's upset in Massachusetts, the GOP in Illinois seems even more emboldened.

Polls show that Illinois Republican voters appear likely to nominate Kirk. Though his moderate views on abortion rights and other social issues upset many within the party's right wing, GOP leaders cleared the field of any major primary opposition.

Patrick Hughes, active in the "tea party" movement in Illinois, hasn't been able to get out of the single digits in most polls, while Kirk maintains a commanding lead. A Chicago Tribune poll released Monday put Kirk's support at 47 percent.

"The Republicans [will very likely] nominate their most electable candidate," says Michael Mezey, a political scientist at DePaul University in Chicago. Kirk is "relatively conservative on econ issues, moderate on social issues, pro-choice and not associated with the religious right in any way."

That's turned the Democratic primary race for the Senate seat into a battle of who stacks up best against Kirk.

Democrat Cheryle Jackson says she is the best candidate to beat Kirk. "I'm strongest on the issues that Mark Kirk is weakest on. Those issues are jobs and the economy," says Jackson, who is on leave from her position of president of the Chicago Urban League while she runs for the U.S. Senate.

She says the Massachusetts election signaled that voters are angry that Washington seems more focused on helping Wall Street than helping Main Street.

But Jackson, who worked at NPR more than a decade ago in communications, is not well known in Illinois, and she carries the baggage of having been Blagojevich's spokeswoman from 2003 through 2006.

Democratic front-runner and State Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias, 33, who is a basketball-playing friend of Obama's, agrees that voters are angry.

"They're angry with insider politics," Giannoulias says. "I think for the past 10 years, Mark Kirk has been a part of that culture; he's taken money from insurance companies and Wall Street banks and large corporations, and he's voted their way time and time again."

But as Giannoulias criticizes Kirk, he is on the defensive over a state college savings program that lost millions, and his family's bank is tied to convicted and jailed former Blagojevich fundraiser and confidant Tony Rezko.

"Here's the question on people's minds: Who can we trust?" said David Hoffman, who, like Jackson, is making his first run for public office.

He says Illinois is ripe for a Massachusetts-like loss, and he contends the only way to prevent that from happening is to have a Democratic nominee who is scandal-free.

"We are worse off than Massachusetts because of the very corruption scandals that have racked the Democratic Party here," says Hoffman, while greeting voters at a downtown Chicago commuter station recently.

"We absolutely need a nominee who will take the corruption issue off the table, not allow Blagojevich or Rezko or any of these other characters to come in, and I am the only [candidate] who does that."

Hoffman, a former federal prosecutor who most recently was the independent inspector general at Chicago's City Hall, has earned the endorsements of just about every major newspaper in the state. He has been gaining a lot of ground in recent polls, but both he and Jackson trail Giannoulias.

Monday's Tribune poll shows Giannoulias supported by 34 percent of Democrats, Jackson at 19 percent and Hoffman at 16 percent. Two other candidates, Chicago attorney Jacob Meister and suburban radiologist Robert Marshall, have 1 percent each in the poll, with 26 percent of voters undecided.

To some degree, analysts say it may not matter who wins the Democratic primary.

"The Democratic field is, to say the least, unimpressive," said DePaul's Mezey, who believes all three would have a tough time beating Republican Kirk.

"I don't think it's a lock by any means," he says. "I think it will be a competitive race, but I would have this high up on the list of seats that might well flip in 2010."

That means Democrats would be right to worry that like Massachusetts, Illinois could see its deep blue Senate seat turn red.