Can Obama Save His Seat?

The GOP’s chances for Senate control might hinge on Mark Kirk, a rarity who proudly wears the centrist label. Dirk Johnson on the last Illinois Senate debate—and Obama’s bid to salvage his seat.

10.28.10 1:51 AM ET

The GOP’s chances for Senate control might hinge on Mark Kirk, a rarity who proudly wears the centrist label. Dirk Johnson on the last Illinois Senate debate—and Obama’s bid to salvage his seat. Plus, our Election Oracle puts Kirk's odds at 60 percent.

At a time when Tea Party brigades are strutting about “taking the country back” for true-believer conservatism, it may come as a bit of a surprise that a central key to Republican hopes for snatching control of the United States Senate rests with an Illinois moderate who fairly shudders when he talks about the rise of the right-wing.

“We need more centrists,” Congressman Mark Kirk declared during a debate Wednesday night with his Democratic opponent, Alexi Giannoulias. He is happy to be regarded as the sort of middle-of-the-roader much detested in Limbaugh Land. “When we look at politics today, we see people on the extreme right and the extreme left. But most Americans are in the center.”

Kirk, the sort of political aisle-crosser supposedly being left in the dust this year, has lately opened a narrow lead, largely by appealing to suburbanites and independents.

On Saturday, President Obama, whose former Senate seat is at stake, is scheduled to ride to Democrat Giannoulias’s rescue, with a huge rally in his old neighborhood on the South Side designed to rouse the faithful.

“They need a giant turnout in the African-American community,” said Paul Green, political analyst at Roosevelt University.

A recent Chicago Tribune poll shows Kirk with a 44 percent to 41 percent lead. The Green Party candidate, LeAlan Jones, who is black, is taking about five percent of the vote.

Jones shrugs at the notion among some Democrats that he could be a spoiler.

“How can you spoil something,” he asks, “when it’s already rotten?”

To be sure, neither Kirk nor Giannoulias have come across as paragons of virtue in the campaign. During the debate, Giannoulias blasted Kirk as a fraud who inflated his resume and exaggerated his military heroics. For his part, Kirk characterized Giannoulias as “immature” and corrupt in his banking practices for doing business “with felons and mobsters.”

“I broke with my party and supported the Feingold-McCain campaign finance bill,” he said during his face-off with Giannoulias.

Each of them came to the debate armed with a long list of names of crooks that the other candidate has embraced in the past.

“This is a hold-your-nose election on both sides,” said Monroe Anderson, a former mayoral press secretary for the late Eugene Sawyer. “It’s very hard to work up much passion for either of these guys.”

What remains to be seen, according to the analysts, is whether Obama can stir the passion for Giannoulias, and for the Democratic incumbent Governor Patrick Quinn.

Few analysts dispute that Obama remains very popular in his hometown. Among black voters, he still enjoys a favorable rating that exceeds 90 percent.

The message being delivered to black and white Democrats is clear. “If Giannoulias loses, the Republicans and the mainstream media are going to bludgeon Obama,” said Anderson. “It’ll be considered a terrible embarrassment that he couldn’t even hold on to his own seat.”

Giannoulias, who ran his family’s now-defunct bank, has been hurt by revelations that he authorized $27 million in loans to men convicted of felonies even as they were on their way to jail.

“There are people,” he tried to explain on Wednesday night, “who unfortunately you wish you hadn’t done business with.”

For his part, Kirk has apologized for exaggerating his battlefield heroics in the Navy. “I learned a painful lesson,” he said.

The strategy for Kirk, who represents a silk-stocking district in the North Shore suburbs along Lake Michigan, seems to be to aim for moderates, and hope that hard-right conservatives believe they have nowhere else to go.

He likes to remind people that he supports abortion rights and does not kowtow to the fire-breathers in the Republican ranks.

“I broke with my party and supported the Feingold-McCain campaign finance bill,” he said during his face-off with Giannoulias. He seemed allergic to the word conservative, repeatedly calling himself moderate or centrist.

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Many on the right in the Republican Party cringe about Kirk. But many  say they have little choice now but to support him. Tom Roeser, a prominent conservative blogger, wrote this week that "I swore I'd never vote for Kirk," but conceded that if he held out, and the Republicans fell one vote short of taking the Senate, "I could never forgive myself."

The math of Illinois politics is clear. Chicago will go strongly Democratic. The cornfield districts downstate will go strongly Republican. The battleground is in the suburbs. A message mixing fiscal conservatism with a social moderate’s stands can play well with these voters.

Positioning himself as a moderate, Kirk seems to be borrowing a page from Jim Edgar, a Republican, and the last Illinois governor not to be indicted. Edgar had been encouraged by top Republicans to run for the Senate seat himself. He says he talked Kirk into launching his candidacy.

Kirk is polished, soft-spoken and affable. He clearly does not strike fear into the hearts of liberals in the way that a Tea Party hero might. But analysts say Kirk is actually quite conservative in his voting habits.

“Kirk gets a lot of credit for being a moderate,” said John Jackson, a political analyst at the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University. “But he voted with George Bush 86 percent of the time. He is certainly not as moderate as Edgar was.”

Giannoulias, meanwhile, trumpets his role as a reliable and needed Democratic vote. But many of the party loyalists see him as a neophyte.

“In the African-American community,” said Anderson, “you need to spend some time going to churches and funerals to become known and trusted, and I just don’t think he’s been around long enough to do that.”

He has already looked for support to Obama, his old basketball-playing buddy. “You can trust him,” the president said at a recent fundraiser. “You can count on him.”

It is no secret, however, that Obama tried to talk Giannoulias out of running for the Senate, viewing him as a vulnerable candidate. The president tried unsuccessfully to convince the state’s popular attorney general, Lisa Madigan, to make a bid for his seat.

The Democratic Party in Illinois, and especially in Chicago, is well-known for its prowess at voter turnout.

“In ordinary times,” said Don Rose, a strategist who has worked for both parties in Illinois, the Democratic Regulars, as they are known, “can easily overcome a five-point deficit in the polls.”

This time, he conceded, seems a little different.

Dirk Johnson is former Chicago bureau chief for Newsweek and The New York Times.