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In Illinois, Dems Dodge Bullet; GOP Shoots Selves in Foot

Friday afternoons seem to be bringing good news for Democrats.

Just when it looked like Republicans had some momentum in their battle to gain ground in the 2010 United States Senate elections comes word from the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza that Mark Kirk, a moderate Republican who represents Illinois’ 10th Congressional District in Suburban Chicago, will not vacate his House seat to run for the Senate:

Illinois Rep. Mark Kirk (R) will not run for the open seat of Sen. Roland Burris (D) in 2010, a stunning reversal from just 48 hours ago when Kirk signaled to National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) that he would make the race.

Kirk’s decision […] followed a meeting of the Illinois Republican congressional delegation on Thursday in which his colleagues refused to back Kirk in a primary against Illinois Republican Party Chairman Andy McKenna due, in large part, to his vote in favor of President Barack Obama’s climate change bill.

Kirk had polled about evenly against Alexi Giannoulias, the most likely Democratic nominee, in an April survey conducted by Public Policy Polling. As I’ve stated before, I think Kirk would ultimately be a slight underdog in that race, as most of the undecideds in that poll were Democrats or independents and as Giannoulias is a reasonably formidable candidate. But clearly, Kirk would have at least a significant chance of claiming Barack Obama’s old seat for Republicans, whereas a generic Republican like McKenna would seem to have almost none. If Kirk is out — and Cillizza cautions that there are efforts being made to get him to reconsider — the Republicans’ chances of winning the seat goes from perhaps 35-40 percent to 5-10 percent.

Kirk has split his vote on the two most important measures that the the House has considered to date, voting against Barack Obama’s stimulus package (as, of course, every House Republican did) but for Henry Waxman’s climate bill. He is a moderate Republican, and he probably has to be given the parameters of his district, which has a PVI of D+6. While that PVI number slightly overstates the difficulty that Republicans face in this district — wealthy, suburban districts like IL-10 tend to be relatively more red in Congressional elections than in Presidential ones — this is not someone who can afford to be a bible-thumping, party-line conservative, especially if he goes on to represent the entire state of Illinois, which is three points more liberal than Kirk’s district alone.

By no means is it always the case that every time a party is sacrificing electability for ideological fealty, it is making a mistake. In Florida, for instance, I have argued that Republicans supporting Marco Rubio rather than Charlie Crist are taking a perfectly justifiable risk: the ideological distance between the candidates is large, and Florida is conservative enough that Rubio would probably still be at least even-money to get elected against a frankly fairly weak Democratic field. Illinois, though, is 10 points to Florida’s left, and the Democratic nominee there should ultimately be pretty strong.

It’s also possible, of course, that there’s something further behind this story. Kirk waffled for a long time on whether to enter the Senate race, only doing so earlier this week when Illinois AG Lisa Madigan said that she wouldn’t. Perhaps he’s worried about the risk he’d be taking in giving up his House seat to run for the Senate. Although there have been a few cases where a candidate won back his House seat after losing an election for the Senate — Tennessee’s Jim Cooper is one such example — in most cases losing one’s incumbency advantage plus being branded with the “loser” label has proven to be difficult to overcome, and running a losing race for the Senate is often a career-ender. It’s also possible that Kirk wouldn’t want to open up his personal and professional life to the sort of scrutiny it would face in a Senate run, as these things can get fairly nasty in Illinois.

The whole story, indeed, is a little bit strange. Why should Kirk particularly care what a lightweight like McKenna thinks about him when he’ll presumably have the enthusiastic backing of John Cornyn and the NRSC? We’ll simply have to wait and see whether there’s anything more to develop. For the time being, however, this race looks like something of a casualty of the Republican leadership and tactical vacuum and would be a significant opportunity bypassed.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

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