Mark Kirk is having a rough summer.
The Republican congressman from the Chicago suburbs is running for the Illinois Senate seat formerly occupied by President Obama, but he is currently spending his days on the campaign trail attempting to placate a conservative base furious over his vote for the House climate bill.
The moderate Kirk has long been viewed as the GOP's best hope of recapturing a Senate seat in the solidly blue state. But in the couple of weeks since announcing his Senate bid, Kirk has been repeatedly hit from the right over support for the climate bill and analysts say it is possible the issue could dog him throughout the campaign.
"Our members are very upset with that vote -- we have yet to receive a good answer and in our opinion there is no good answer for that vote," said Joe Calomino, director of the Illinois branch of Americans for Prosperity, an organization that advocates for fiscally conservative policies. "On a statewide level, that vote is an anti-free market vote."
The furor over the climate bill started almost immediately after the late June vote, as numerous conservative commentators and bloggers harshly criticized the eight House Republicans who voted in favor of the bill and in the minds of some provided the votes needed for passage (Greenwire, June 30).
Some of that criticism has faded in recent weeks as conservatives have turned their attention to health care and other topics and as the climate debate moved to the Senate. But the issue continues to haunt Kirk, who now has to explain his vote not just to constituents but to conservative voters across the state -- including to those in the coal-producing regions of southern Illinois.
Kirk held at least six meetings with constituents in the weeks following the vote, with one such meeting taking place just before he announced his Senate bid.
More than 120 individuals appeared at the forum with those in attendance showing disappointment and frustration over the vote, according to a blog entry written by prominent Illinois conservative and former GOP state Rep. Penny Pullen.
"Most of the comments and questions were respectful, but disappointment, sense of betrayal and outright anger was apparent," Pullen wrote. "A high/low point came when a citizen rose, told him he'd always been 'her man' and then informed him she would do everything she could to defeat his next candidacy."
Newspapers in the Chicago area and elsewhere across the state -- not to mention a number of conservative blogs -- have likewise been filled with comments from voters accusing Kirk of casting a vote that betrayed Republican principles and will harm the state.
Too moderate for GOP?
Kirk has always had a lukewarm relationship with the conservatives in the Republican Party, who view him as being as being too far to the left on issues such as gun control and environmental policy. He has often campaigned on his environmental record and is viewed by both Democratic leaders and environmental advocates as one potential GOP vote that they can potentially peel away.
"His congressional district is environmentally conscious and in his campaigns he's really pushed his environmental record as a selling point for him," said Wayne Steger, an Illinois politics expert at DePaul University.
The significance of Kirk's climate vote, and the conservatives reaction to it, will hinge on just how prevalent that issue is by the time Election Day rolls around, Steger said. But he noted the vote adds to the already tense relationship between Kirk and the GOP base.
"If you look at Kirk's record this is just one vote," Steger said. "I think he's got bigger issue in the Republican Party than his position on the environment. It's one more piece in a bigger picture -- he's clearly much more moderate than the Republican Party nationally or even in Illinois."
For conservatives, Kirk has yet to provide a satisfactory answer to why he helped the Democrats pass the climate bill, 219-212.
"I would love for the congressman to articulate to the public that he may have voted for his district but that it's a bad vote for the state of Illinois," Americans for Prosperity's Calomino said. "And if that he were senator that he would not vote for that bill."
Kirk has on a couple of occasions said he was representing the wishes of his suburban Chicago district. At the same time, the congressman has already started to back away from that vote -- saying that as a senator he would examine such legislation for its impact on the whole state -- though he has not gone so far to say that he would vote against the bill if it comes back to the House.
In an interview for "Fox Chicago Sunday" after announcing his Senate bid, Kirk said, "I've always backed energy independence policies, but I've heard from people on this issue like no other. The energy interests of Illinois are far broader and deeper than my North Shore district."
He added that he believes the bill in its current form is "probably dead" in the Senate but if it comes back to the House, he would like to see provisions for increased use of nuclear power and offshore drilling -- two areas that are generally popular with Republicans.
But will it be enough?
"It's going to be an issue of whether these voters believe Kirk on whether he's going to be one of them," said Greg Blankenship, president of the conservative Illinois Alliance for Growth. "His relationship with the conservative wing of the party has long been a difficult one because of the district that he represents."
Blankenship has criticized Kirk's climate vote but has also said that conservatives should recognize that a Kirk win would in the long run help put in place a conservative Senate Republican leadership. "Their choice is that Kirk votes to organize the Senate for a more conservative leadership or they stay home and sit on their hands," he said.
And even as Kirk continues to feel the heat from the party's conservative base, it may not matter as there is not currently another viable GOP candidate in the race, observers note. "They're going to nominate him because I think there's a recognition that they need a more moderate candidate to win statewide," said Steger of DePaul University.
Kirk's current competition for the GOP nod comes from a couple of little-known candidates and no challenge appears to be forthcoming from a high-profile Republican.
The climate vote is not the only issue that has contributed to a less-than-ideal start to Kirk's Senate bid. He has taken heat for posting Twitter updates about his stint on active duty as a naval reservist, a possible violation of regulations, and Democrats have gone after him for "waffling" on his decision on whether to enter the Senate race. But even Kirk has acknowledged that few -- if any -- other political issues have drawn as much constituent reaction as the climate change legislation.
Neither the Kirk campaign nor the National Republican Senatorial Committee returned calls for comment on this story.
A double-edged sword?
Assuming he gets the nomination, an angry base could pose problems for Kirk in a number of ways -- not the least of which is the possibility that they may stay home on Election Day. Kirk will also have to win over voters, regardless of political affiliation, in southern Illinois, a hub for the coal industry and an area for the state where economic concerns generally heavily outweigh environmental ones.
And, pundits point out, Kirk will have to not only keep his base but also swing independents and moderate Democrats to his side -- a task that could be made harder by any effort to appease the right wing of his party.
"If you do that, people start to ask the question, 'Do you have any convictions?" said Blankenship. "That's going to be a tough line to walk."
Democrats, meanwhile, are likely to use any move by Kirk toward the right to argue that the congressman is far from the moderate that he claims to be.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has already hinted that part of its message will involve trying to portray Kirk as a right-wing politician closely aligned with the conservatives of his party -- and that energy policy will be a part of that equation.
The DSCC recently released a pair of Web advertisements that aim to undermine Kirk's moderate reputation -- pointing to Kirk's vote against a stimulus package and a budget blueprint that carried many of Obama's energy initiatives.
"Mark Kirk wants people to forget about his vote against the stimulus, just like he wants people to forget about his votes against every solution to get this economy moving again," DSCC communications director Eric Schultz said when Kirk announced his Senate bid. "But this is hypocrisy with a capital H. Nothing is more hypocritical then touting projects that you voted against."
Liberal bloggers have also gone on the offensive, accusing Kirk on "backtracking" on his position on climate.
The overwhelming front-runner for the Democratic nomination is State Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias, 33, who entered the race last week. The two camps have yet to engage in much direct sparring, though Giannoulias used his speech to roll out some of the same energy-related rhetoric commonly employed by Obama and other national Democrats.
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