By Aaron Blake - 10/07/09 07:53 PM EDT
The Democratic front-runner in Illinois’s Senate race has several
well-funded opponents to deal with, and it looks like Republican
front-runner Rep. Mark Kirk could have one as well.
Developer Patrick Hughes (R), who made some headlines last week for securing the endorsement of former Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka, told The Hill on Wednesday that he will report $380,000 in receipts in the month-plus after he entered the race in late August.
Hughes’s totals pale in comparison to a couple of self-funders on the Democratic side, who have reported around $1 million in receipts in recent days. But conservatives are holding out hope that he can make himself a viable alternative.
He emphasized that his fundraising effort is really just getting off the ground now, with the formation of a finance team consisting of Ditka, Tellabs executive Mike Birck and investor Peter Huizenga, the brother of Miami Dolphins owner Wayne Huizenga.
Conservative activists have largely coalesced behind Hughes as an alternative to front-runner Kirk, whose centrist positions have allowed him to hold a tough suburban-Chicago district but could be a liability in a Republican primary. The field is crowded, but if anyone is going to give Kirk a run, most believe it will be Hughes.
The jury is still out on Hughes, who has not run for office before and is waging an uphill campaign against the party establishment. But he says he relishes the role.
“I’m kind of like the Marco Rubio of Illinois,” Hughes said Tuesday. The reference is to the conservative former Florida House Speaker who, coincidentally, made a splash the same day by announcing $1 million raised in the third quarter for his Senate primary against another establishment-favored centrist, Republican Gov. Charlie Crist.
Both Hughes and Rubio will be swamped in the fundraising game. While Crist’s $4.3 million second quarter dwarfs even Rubio’s successful third quarter, Kirk announced a very strong $1.6 million raised in the most recent period, and he has routinely been one of the top fundraisers in the House.
Hughes’s total also falls well short of potential Democratic opponents. While Democratic front-runner Alexi Giannoulias reported $1.1 million raised, former Chicago Inspector General David Hoffman reported $900,000 ($500,000 of his own money) and attorney Jacob Meister self-funded $1 million.
Hughes and others have set his goal at $1.5 million for the primary, and he’s confident he’ll get there. If he does, he could at the very least force Kirk to spend some money on an early February 2010 primary.
Kirk has the endorsement of the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) and the support of many of the state party officials, but conservative critics and potential Democratic opponents point to his recent posturing on Congress’s cap-and-trade energy bill as evidence that he is worried about his right flank.
Kirk has stated that he was one of eight Republicans to support the bill in June because it was in his district’s narrow interest, but that he would vote against it as a senator.
“What really sets Mark and I apart in this election is that I’m a true mainstream fiscal conservative,” Hughes said. “Running in a Republican primary in a coal-producing, oil-producing, farming, manufacturing state, that bill will crush all of those industries.”
Hughes released a poll last month showing that a majority of Republican primary voters oppose cap-and-trade and also differ with Kirk’s centrist positions on abortion and same-sex marriage.
The poll showed Kirk leading Hughes 24-11, and Hughes’s supporters cast it as a sign that Kirk doesn’t start in as strong a position as some assume.
“All other things being equal, with an adequate amount of money, Hughes has a very good chance of defeating Kirk in a Republican primary,” Hughes backer and conservative activist Paul Caprio said.
Kirk’s campaign notes the many endorsements he has received, including those of virtually all major leaders of the state GOP, and said he is fighting liberal leaders in Washington.
“In the days ahead, Rep. Kirk will continue to offer common-sense alternatives to Nancy Pelosi’s trillion-dollar government takeover of healthcare, fight to end SEIU-ACORN corruption and increase efforts to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons,” spokesman Eric Elk said.
The challenge from the right rehashes past Illinois contests that have trended against centrists like Kirk.
Hughes and his allies are fond of sighting the victories of anti-establishment conservatives Al Salvi and Peter Fitzgerald in the 1996 and 1998 Senate primaries, respectively.
Both were state legislators facing statewide officials. Salvi lost the general election to Sen. Dick Durbin (D) after beating Lt. Gov. Bob Kustra in the primary, while Fitzgerald went on to serve one term in the Senate after he beat state Treasurer Loleta Didrickson.
But while he can partially self-fund his campaign, Hughes says he can’t self-fund to the extent of someone like Fitzgerald, who spent $7 million on his primary. And it’s not clear if he’s willing or able to spend money like Salvi, who plugged $1.2 million into his primary.
Kent Redfield, a professor at the University of Illinois at Springfield, noted that, though conservatives have had their upsets in the state, there are other, more recent examples of middle-of-the-road candidates prevailing statewide. He pointed to the winners of the party’s last two gubernatorial primaries, state Attorney General Jim Ryan in 2002 and state Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka in 2006.
“This is not a clear-the-field kind of situation with the presumptive nominee, but I would be surprised at this point if Kirk doesn’t win easily,” he said.