Gizzi on Politics: July 20, 2009

Kirk’s Cap-and-Trade Catastrophe

For many weeks, it had appeared that four-term Rep. Mark Kirk (lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 55%) was going to wrap up the Republican nomination for U.S. senator from Illinois in 2010. 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 Representative] John Shimkus, this source continued, was 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.”

Kirk did finally make it clear last week he would run for the Senate. But his candidacy was on shaky ground after June 26, when the Chicago-area lawmaker cast one of the only eight Republican House votes that were pivotal in the 219-to-213 vote passage of the “cap and trade” energy tax bill.

Even liberal Republican Rep. Judy Biggert (lifetime ACU rating: 69%), who shares Kirk’s non-conservative social views, 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.

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

On Thursday July 9, the day before appointed Democratic Sen. Roland Burris announced that he would not seek a full term next year, the Illinois GOP members and McKenna held a closed-door meeting at the offices of the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) in Washington. 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.”

Waiting for Aaron

But did this mean that they would back McKenna, who was the only non-member of Congress present at the July 9 session? Hardly. The lawmakers reportedly criticized the chairman for leaving the party nearly broke as he considers resigning to explore a Senate race. Many Illinois GOPers have high hopes that Hinsdale 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 Gen. George Patton and not Caspar Milquetoast.” Because of a system in which the chairman is elected by only 19 party leaders with weighted votes, McKenna prevailed. (Last week, McKenna formally ended his exploration of a Senate bid.)

With Burris and Democratic State Atty. Gen. Lisa Madigan both out of the race for the seat formerly held by Barack Obama, the media forecast a stiff Democratic primary. The leading candidates now are Merchandise Mart CEO Christopher Kennedy (son of Robert) and State Treasurer Alexis Giannoulias, one of Obama’s closest political allies.

As we were going to press, I learned that Mark Kirk will run for the Senate after all. Rep. Shimkus told me, “He’ll be our candidate and will make an official announcement in a few days.” Both Shimkus (lifetime ACU rating: 88%) and fellow conservative Rep. Pete Roskam (lifetime ACU rating: 96%) are likely to endorse him soon.  

I asked Shimkus whether Senate hopeful-to-be Kirk is aware of the problems his vote for cap and trade caused among conservatives. Shaking his head, the Springfield-area congressman replied: “I think we made that very clear to him last week.” As to whether there might be another Republican Senate hopeful on the horizon, one source said no and mentioned with a laugh the state party leaders’ dilemma: 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.”

Short Takes:

“Chu-Chu” Race Over: To no one’s surprise, California State Board of Equalization member and liberal Democrat Judy Chu won the special election last week to fill the House district of new Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis. Given the heavily Democratic leanings of California’s 32nd District (Los Angeles County), Chu’s landslide win was probably less interesting than the name of the Republican she defeated: Betty Tom Chu, community leader and a relative of the Democrat by marriage.

Up in Virginia: Although Democrat Creigh Deeds did get the anticipated “bounce” in the polls following his landslide win in the three-candidate primary for governor of Virginia last month, that seems to be fading. According to the first Public Policy Polling survey since the primary, conservative Republican former State Atty. Gen. Bob McDonnell leads Bath County State Sen. Deeds 49% to 43% statewide. McDonnell’s lead among independents (54% to 33%) is the chief reason for his margin, according to Public Policy Polling.

The same survey showed conservative Republicans winning the other two constitutional offices on the Old Dominion State ballot this year: Among likely voters, Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling holds a lead of 46% to 40% over his Democratic challenger, former state Secretary of Transportation Jody Wagner. In the race for attorney general, the Republican nominee, State Sen. Ken Cuccinelli leads Democratic state legislator Steve Shannon by 45% to 38%.
Senate Race Shaping Up in New Hampshire: Unless there is an incumbent running, New Hampshire Republicans usually have a hotly contested race for their U.S. Senate nomination. With three-term GOP Sen. Judd Gregg retiring, that appears to be the case for 2010. As the June 29 “Politicsreported, 1996 gubernatorial nominee Ovid LaMontagne and Republican National Committeeman Sean Mahoney, both considered strong conservatives, are eyeing the race. In addition, moderate former Rep. (1994-2006) Charles Bass (lifetime ACU rating: 73%) is reportedly considering a race for the Senate or for his old 2nd District House seat now held by certain Democratic Senate nominee Paul Hodes.

Much of the recent interest in the GOP race centers on Kelly Ayotte, who recently resigned the appointive office of state attorney general to explore a Senate bid. Considered an attractive candidate with a strong background in law enforcement, Ayotte is best-known for arguing the case upholding the Granite State’s parental notification law all the way up to the state Supreme Court.  

But given that Ayotte has never sought elective office and has no paper trail on issues, some conservatives are skeptical. One longtime conservative activist from the state addressed this during a recent lunch with me, noting that “she could easily say as the state’s lawyer, she was representing her client and was personally pro-abortion.” He reminded me that two past Republican attorneys general, Supreme Court Justice David Souter and former Sen. (1980-92) Warren Rudman, turned out to be major disappointments to conservatives. But Steve Merrill, a former attorney general who went on to be governor from 1992-96, turned out to be very conservative.

State GOP Chairman John Sununu told Politico newspaper that Ayotte is “much more conservative than the press has made her out to be.” Asked if she is pro-life, onetime White House chief of staff Sununu said, “having known her over the years, that’s my perception.” The state Democratic Party has already released a video comparing Ayotte unfavorably to Sarah Palin.