Did Cap and Trade Vote Undo Ill. GOP Senate Hopeful?

The announcement by Blagojevich-appointed Sen. Roland Burris (D.-Ill.) that he would not seek a full term next year, a more-important Illinois drama was sidelined: can Republicans take a heretofore “safe” Senate seat next year?

Admittedly, the Republican Party in the Land of Lincoln has had more downs than ups in recent years and is fully capable of snatching embarrassment from the jaws of opportunity. But in the case of Rep. Mark Kirk and his once-sure and now-only-possible race for the Senate, the Illinois GOP had some help. Centrist Kirk is one of the eight Republican House Members who voted for the controversial Waxman-Markey climate control legislation (“cap and trade”) and that vote, by itself undid his once-solid backing for the Senate among fellow GOP lawmakers from Illinois.

The personable Kirk is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a conservative. And all of the eight global warmists among the House Republicans must not be let off the hook easily for this vote.

For weeks now, it appeared that four-termer Kirk was going to wrap up the Republican nomination for U.S. Senator next year. As one Illinois GOP source who requested anonymity told me, “Even Mark’s pro-choice votes, his support of hate-crimes legislation, and his less-than-pure record on guns were being tolerated by conservatives. [Conservative Illinois Reps.] Don Manzullo and John Shimkus were going to provide him with cover on the guns and abortion issue. The party needed a strong candidate for the Senate and Mark was willing to run. It was that simple.”

But all that cheerleading for Kirk from the Republican House Members came to a screeching halt on June 26th, as the Chicago-area lawmaker cast one of the eight Republican votes in the House that was pivotal to the passage of “cap and trade” by a margin of 219-to-213.

Even liberal Republican Rep. Judy Bigert (R.-Ill.), who shares Kirk’s non-conservative social issues, was reportedly angry with her colleague for a vote in favor of what she said would lead to a “war on the middle class,” according to my Illinois GOP source.

Andy McKenna, who is expected to step down as state party chairman, began making noises about running for the Senate himself.

On Thursday (July 9th), amid mounting rumors that the 71-year-old Burris would soon announce his retirement, the Illinois GOP Members and McKenna held a closed-door meeting at the offices of the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC). According to one account, “It was obvious a lot had changed from the past six months, when Kirk was being cheered on to run. Most of his colleagues now made it clear to him that they would not guarantee him the nomination in the primary [in March of next year] or support him in a contested primary.”

“Wait Until Aaron Schock Grows Up”

But did this mean that they would back McKenna, who was the only non-member of Congress present at the July 9th session? Hardly. The lawmakers reportedly criticized the outgoing chairman for leaving the party nearly broke as he resigned to explore a Senate race. Many Illinois GOPers have high hopes that Hinsdale (Ill.) businessman and former U.S. Army ranger Jim Nalepa will be chosen to succeed McKenna at the party helm. (Three years ago, the two-fisted Nalepa sought the chairmanship vowing that the party “needs General George Patton and not Caspar Milktoast;” because of a system in which the chairman is elected by nineteen party leaders with weighted votes, McKenna prevailed).

The next day, Burris made his anticipated retirement announcement. Press speculation forecast a divided Democratic primary, with the leading candidates being Merchandise Mart CEO Christopher Kennedy (son of Robert) and State Treasurer Alexis Giannoulias, one of Barack Obama’s closest political allies.

“And it looks like Mark Kirk is running for the Senate,” Rep. Pete Sessions (R.-Tex.) told me that same day during an interview in his capacity as chairman of the NRCC. By late afternoon, however, the Washington Post’s “The Fix” on-line publication reported that Kirk had decided not to run for the Senate after all. The reason cited was the refusal of his colleagues to guarantee him nomination without a primary challenge.

But that’s not the end of it. Within an hour of Kirk’s reported no-go, his office issued a statement that this was incorrect, that the congressman had not decided yet on whether to run for the Senate (which is nonetheless a retreat from the signals he had been sending out for weeks that he was indeed a Senate hopeful).

Kirk and his House colleagues from Illinois will hold another meeting later this week, as the Senate saga continues. As to whether there is another Republican Senate hopeful on the horizon, one source said no and cited the state party’s dilemma in that their office-holder with the most promise for a statewide bid is, at 27, too young to run for the Senate. As he put it, “We’ve got to wait until [freshman Rep.] Aaron Schock grows up.”