Update, February 2, 10:30p.m.: Mark Kirk won the GOP nomination by more than 35 points.
Can Republicans wrest control of the Senate seat held by Barack Obama just over a year ago? Yes, they can, says GOP Senate candidate Mark Kirk. "If you’re the right kind of Republican who can put together a broad coalition of Republicans, independents, and some Democrats, you can repeat the Massachusetts miracle," Kirk told me during a phone interview late last week. "[Scott Brown's] victory electrified Republicans in Illinois."
Kirk's first challenge to keeping that coalition together is shoring up support from Republicans following tomorrow's GOP primary (which Kirk is expected to win by a healthy double-digit margin). Kirk's moderate and liberal votes in Congress have left some conservatives less than enthused about his Senate bid. According to Kirk's main GOP primary challenger, lawyer and political newcomer Patrick Hughes, "What got me into the race specifically was two things: one, Mark Kirk’s vote for cap and trade. … After he voted for cap and trade, I looked at his record [opposing] the [Iraq] surge and his incredible social liberalism."
Hughes rejects comparisons between Kirk and Scott Brown in Massachusetts. "I think that Scott Brown is a conservative," says Hughes, "far more on many fiscal and social and constitutional issues than Mark Kirk is." But is Brown really that much more conservative than Kirk?
Brown voted for a regional cap and trade system years ago, but now opposes it. Kirk voted for cap and trade last summer but quickly changed his mind.
"When I decided to run for the Senate," he said, "I spent 40 days in 28 Illinois cities, and at the end of that I felt that while the bill had little impact on my north suburban district, it had a tremendous impact on Illinois heavy manufacturing, agriculture, and mining. So at the end of August, I made the decision, the first time in my career to change my position on an issue, and announced that as a senator," he would oppose cap and trade. "When you change your position on an issue, in my view you should do it in public with the full YouTube impact and be very clear why."
Kirk has a mostly pro-choice record on abortion, but he supported the Stupak amendment to oppose federal funding in the House health care bill. More to the point, Hughes says, Kirk can't be trusted on the most important issue to social (and many other) conservatives: Supreme Court nominees. "I don’t think he’ll support people like Alito," says Hughes. "I don’t think he’ll support people like Roberts."
But Kirk says that's just not true. "I was not in favor of Sotomayor, but was in favor of Justice Roberts and Alito," Kirk told me. That puts Kirk to the right of Scott Brown, who says he would have voted for Sotomayor as well as Bush's nominees. There are other issues, guns for example, where Kirk is to Brown's left.
There's a lot for conservatives to appreciate about Kirk. He is a vocal opponent of bringing the "al Qaeda core to Illinois"--i.e. transferring Gitmo detainees to Thompson prison in Illinois--and, as a Naval reservist, Kirk deployed to Afghanistan over the holidays. Kirk recalls that after he told the Afghan agriculture minister that he hails from Illinois, the minister replied, "Ah, in Afghanistan we know corruption but not like that."
"Corruption underlies everything here," says Kirk, noting the upcoming June trial of Rod Blagojevich and likely Democratic Senate candidate Alexi Giannoulias's ties to a bank scandal. "In the Republican Congress, I led the effort to kill the bridge to nowhere," Kirk says. "I am the only member of the appropriations committee, Republican or Democrat, who does not take earmarks."
As Ken Tomlinson wrote in THE WEEKLY STANDARD in April ("In Praise of a GOP Moderate"), a Kirk win in Obama's home state would be a pretty good deal for conservatives. That's still true today.