The Illinois Senate race has taken on a new meaning: It's no longer just a regular election -- it's also a special election. What this means is, there will be two elections on the same ballot for the same Senate seat, but for different terms. One will decide who will be seated in January, along with all other new members of the Senate, and the other victor will take his seat immediately after the election results have been certified in November. (A similar decision has been made regarding the Senate election for Robert Byrd's former seat representing West Virginia, and a special election will be held in Delaware, where the winner will be seated immediately, to complete the remainder of Joe Biden's term.)
The special election is to fill the seat that Roland Burris has been keeping warm, while the regular election is to fill the seat for the next six years. So on one ballot, voters will get to vote twice. The candidates for both elections are Republican congressman Mark Kirk and Democratic Illinois state treasurer Alexi Giannoulias.
What does this all mean? Not much if a Democrat wins the special election. Giannoulias replacing Burris would, for all practical purposes, be pretty much the same. Sure, they're different people, with different priorities, but each is likely to vote with the Democratic party on all the major issues between November 2010 and January 2011.
For the Kirk campaign, the governor's recent decision to call a special election to split the elections offers a renewed sense of urgency. No longer will the Democrats have such a large advantage in the lame duck Congress. (Charles Krauthammer warned of the Democrats' hopes of passing unpopular legislation during the lame-duck Congress here.) Currently, there are 59 senators that caucus with the Democrats and 41 Republican senators.
Kirk plans to use this as a political issue. He wants to electrify his support by saying that a lame duck Congress, especially if the majority party incurs major losses in November, as many analysts now predict, will be desperate to pass as many measures as they can before losing power (or some power) to the Republicans. Kirk, the argument goes, would stand as a check against these desperate measures.
Will the issue work for Kirk? It certainly won't hurt, that's clear. But like much else in politics, the circumstances as we near election day on November 2 might end up being the most decisive factor.