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Can a Republican Take Obama’s Old Seat?

Might the next senator from the Great State of Illinois be a Republican?

Nathan Gonzales of the Rothenberg Political Report ponders that question for Illinois, and also Delaware, the other state with a Senate vacancy created by the Obama-Biden victory last November. “Over the past century, half of the dozen seats vacated by a new president or vice president have switched partisan control in the next election,” writes Gonzales. “In 2010, Republicans have open-seat opportunities in Illinois and Delaware and could win both seats vacated by a president and vice president in the same cycle for the first time in U.S. history.”

OK, six of twelve historically. But that’s a small and idiosyncratic data set. Still, it’s worth asking: Can the GOP really dream about picking up senate seats in either or both Illinois and Delaware, two of the bluest states in the country?

Let’s start with Delaware. As Gonzales points out, the only real possibility for a Republican winning there is if the state’s at-large congressman, Mike Castle, decides to risk his House seat to take on Vice President Biden’s son and current attorney general, Beau. But even that would be a tough challenge for Castle, because the young Biden will have not only the family name and the White House to bank on, but he will be a returning Iraq vet. If Castle runs, whatever happens you’d have to give him props for having the guts to take on the Bidens.

As for Democrats losing Obama’s former seat, to entertain this notion you first have to believe that the Rod Blagojevich fiasco and the bizarre case of Roland Burris have soured a significant number of Illinoisans on the Democrat brand there, and you further have to believe that the president will have little to no political juice in his home state. Not likely. Both Illinois senate seats are reliably Democratic of late; aside from Peter Fitzgerald’s lone term (1999-2005), Obama’s seat has been in Democratic hands since 1970, and the Democrats have controlled Dick Durbin’s seat since 1985. Only a handful of other states (Maryland, Massachusetts, etc.) have been this solidly Democratic in the Senate during the past two or three decades.

Gonzales is correct that Republican Congressman Mark Kirk could be formidable–he’s young, attractive, and represents the Chicago suburbs rather than some rural district downstate, and he can boast of a decidely moderate voting record. In fact, the National Journal ranks him 190th, amost right down the middle, in its conservative-to-liberal House rankings (1 = most conservative, 435 = most liberal). And heck, any Republican who can get Michelle Malkin’s dander up because-gasp!–he not only voted for cap-and-trade but dared to hold a job fair in his district, deserves a hearing, even in Illinois. Though he hemmed and hawed a bit, Kirk is officially in the race for sure and, now that he’s committed, he may very well run a great campaign.

Still, I wouldn’t bet on Kirk. Though the 2008 presidential results in Delaware and Illinois are an unfair indicator of Republican competitiveness, the Democratic nominee won both states by at least 8 points in each of the four previous cycles, 1992 through 2004. To find a Republican victory you have to go back to 1988, when George H.W. Bush carried both states. And electoral politics is increasingly about electoral demography. Candidates and campaigns matter, of course, and demography is not destiny. Yet, and even with the Blago-Burris taint on the seat, the contest to take Obama’s old seat–especially since it will look very bad politically for Obama, who will undoubtedly make sure whomever the Democrats nominate has whatever s/he needs–remains an uphill climb for Kirk and the GOP.

UPDATE: MSNBC is reporting that former Blago aide Cheryle Jackson will enter the Democratic primary against state treasure Alexi Giannoulias.