Can Illinois Go Red, and Give the White House the Blues?

Illinois has been a disastrous state for Republicans for over a decade. That could start changing tomorrow.

A former Republican Governor, George Ryan, is in jail for selling driver's licenses in exchange for campaign contributions while he was Secretary of State, becoming the fourth recent Illinois governor to serve time and get to wear one of the Fighting Illini's team colors: orange. Rod Blagojevich may be the fifth. Blago's attempted sale of Barack Obama's former Senate seat led in the end to the appointment of Roland Burris, who is not running for reelection. In a state where Obama won by 25% in 2008, carrying sixteen of Illinois's nineteen congressional districts, the open Senate race looks very competitive. 

The likely winner of the GOP primary for the U.S. Senate seat on Tuesday is 10th District Congressman Mark Kirk (ahead by 53% to 18% in the most recent survey of the primary race). Kirk is either slightly ahead or slightly behind against the leading Democratic nominees he might face in November, according to a few recent polls. In the last two U.S. Senate races in Illinois, the GOP candidates against Obama in 2004 (Alan Keyes) and Dick Durbin in 2008 (Dr. Steve Sauerberg) averaged only 30% of the vote, suggesting that 2010 is a rare opportunity for a Republican to win in Illinois.

Some conservatives think Kirk is too moderate for their tastes. But assuming Kirk wins Tuesday, he has a real shot at winning a Democratic seat -- and not just any seat, but Obama's former seat, in a very blue state, against a Democrat who is on the far left side of the political spectrum. A conservative who sits out such a contest in November is, in effect, helping Harry Reid retain his Senate majority.

Kirk's voting record in Congress is certainly not as conservative as that of  Joe Wilson or Mike Pence. But it  is more conservative than that of Scott Brown when he served in the State Senate in Massachusetts, and conservatives understood that Brown, while not a movement conservative, was far better than Martha Coakley in terms of stopping the statist politics (including the health care reform bill) of the Obama administration. In some areas, such as national security and spending restraint, Kirk's record is very good. Kirk is one of only two members of Congress who spends time each year on reserve duty in the military.

Kirk won election to Congress five times -- three times in years when Democratic presidential candidates won his district, and the other two when Democratic candidates for governor or senator easily won the district. In 2008, he won his seat by 5% while Obama won the district by 23%, demonstrating his strong appeal to independents in a very Democratic cycle. Winning over independents in November is critical for any Republican hoping to win in such a blue state. Kirk gives the party its best chance of picking up a Senate seat in Illinois since 1998. 

Conservatives can take their best shot at getting a more conservative candidate selected on Tuesday. But if Kirk wins the primary, the shrewd thing to do is to help him win in November.

Two other primary races in Illinois on Tuesday are worth mentioning. Dan Proft, a favorite of conservatives and the Tea Party movement in the state, is one of six serious candidates competing for the GOP nomination for governor. Recent polls show the candidates tightly bunched, with no one getting more than 20% of the vote and a large number of voters undecided. Proft is a refreshing newcomer to politics and a hardliner on taxes and spending. He has made the extraordinary corruption in Illinois, Cook County, and Chicago politics a focus of his campaign. This is a potentially winning message in November, given the disgust felt by many Illinois voters. If enough conservatives move to Proft in the next few days, he could spring an upset and become the nominee.

In the race for Mark Kirk's open House seat, there is a five-way GOP primary in the 10th district. The candidate who is surging is Dr. Arie Friedman, a former military pilot and combat veteran of Desert Storm who also happens to be a favorite of conservatives in the district (Friedman recently won an A rating from the NRA). Andy Stern's SEIU has helped fund a campaign against Friedman because of his support from the Tea Party movement. Friedman, an ardent supporter of a close U.S.-Israel relationship, would be a strong general-election candidate in a district that is about 20% Jewish. As a physician and entrepreneur in the health care field, he is also very knowledgeable and articulate in discussing the health care reform effort, which is sure to be a major campaign theme in the fall.    

Richard Baehr is chief political correspondent of American Thinker.