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Could Roland Burris Be Re-Elected?

As the world bids good riddance — the only thing I’ll say is that I had the good sense to vote for Judy Baar Topinka in 2006 — the question naturally arises: Does Roland Burris have a political future beyond 2010? This is a really a three part question:

1) Will Burris run for re-election? This is perhaps the easiest question to answer: Hell Yes. If you’re crazy enough to be Rod Blagojevich’s appointee and endure the media sh*tstorm that ensues, it’s a relatively save bet that you’re going to run for re-election as an incumbent. Nor is the possibility or probability of a loss likely to be much of a deterrent, as Burris ran quixotic campaigns for governor on no fewer than three occasions (1994, 1998, 2002), never advancing past the primary, as well as for Mayor of Chicago in 1995.

2) Will he win the primary? This is probably Burris’ biggest hurdle, but it is not impossible to imagine him advancing. A new Research 2000 poll for Daily Kos gives Burris a 26 plurality of the vote against potential Democratic opponents Jan Schakowsky (12 percent) and Alexi Giannoulias (11 percent). On the other hand, 26 percent is not terrific for a candidate with near-universal name recognition, whereas Schakowsky and Giannoulias are much less known.

One critical question is whether Illinois’ major stakeholders, particularly Mayor Daley and the unions, might endorse someone other than Burris. And this seems unlikely: Burris’ voting record is likely to be quite liberal/progressive, and both the mayor and the unions would risk angering their African-American constituents by trying to primary out Burris.

Still, in a head-to-head matchup against either Schakowsky or Giannoulias, both of whom are reasonably charismatic opponents, Burris’ unfavorables could catch up with him, and he would probably be defeated. The question, perhaps, is whether Burris will have to face just one of Schakowsky or Giannoulias, or perhaps as many as 3-4 credible opponents. My guess is that Burris will have trouble topping out at more than about 35-40 percent of the vote, most of that coming from Illinois’ substantial African-American population. But in a multi-way race, 35 or 40 percent is sometimes enough to win.

3) Would he win the general election? Here, the Research 2000 poll presents more unambiguously good news for Burris: he leads Republican Mark Kirk 37-30 in a head-to-head matchup. There are, obviously, a lot of undecided voters there, but Kirk is well known among Illinoisans (78 percent of respondents were able to record an opinion about him) and not all that well liked (41 percent view him unfavorably) so the usual excuses about name recognition don’t fly. Furthermore, it seems plausible that Burris’ favorables are liable to improve as the circumstances surrounding his appointment fade from memory and he becomes more of a mundane, generic Democrat. Illinoisans tend to be a forgiving lot.

This is not to say that Kirk — or another Republican like Peter Roskam — wouldn’t have a chance of unseating Burris. Depending on how much money the Republicans might throw into the race, they might have a pretty good chance. But the Republican brand in Illinois is every bit as damaged as the Democratic one (the most recent Republican governor now makes his home at the Federal Correctional Institution in Terre Haute, Indiana) and it’s unlikely that they’d be the favorite.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.