Brown's win shows Republicans how to seize Obama's old Illinois Senate seat

In a year when populism is good politics, Scott Brown has given Republicans a model for how to harness voters’ frustration.

Voters are “angry and concerned. But I would say it’s overwhelmingly based on policy — anti-spending, anti-tax, anti-corruption,” said Rep. Mark Kirk (Ill.), who's hoping to become the next Republican to claim a big Democratic scalp.

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Sen.-elect Brown, who snagged the late Sen. Edward Kennedy's old seat in an upset last week against Democrat Martha Coakley, showed the GOP how to run “a quiet, disciplined campaign rigorously focusing on economic issues,” Kirk told The Hill.

“Many of the same concerns, especially about the corruption inside the healthcare bill, are shared by the people of Illinois," Kirk said. "Corruption is probably an even bigger issue in Illinois because of the arrest of Gov. [Rod] Blagojevich and his trial coming up this summer.”

As Democrats mull the loss of their long-held Massachusetts Senate seat, their attention will likely turn toward Illinois — another race where overconfidence could be a factor. But in a year with an increasing anxious electorate, President Barack Obama’s old Senate seat is by no means guaranteed to stay in the Democratic column.

Kirk is expected to be a formidable opponent for whichever Democrat emerges from the party’s primary on Feb. 2. State Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias remains the frontrunner but he faces stiff competition from Cheryle Robinson Jackson, former head of the Chicago Urban League, and David Hoffman, the former inspector general of Chicago.

“There is an electorate overflowing with frustration and anger about the economic situation,” said Robert Creamer, a Democratic strategist with experience in Illinois. “If Democrats do not get ahead of that and direct it where it belongs — at Wall Street and the banks and the insurance companies and the big financial interests that caused this disaster — then people will blame Democrats.”

The lesson from Massachusetts is that being a populist works, Creamer noted. “If Giannoulias wins [the primary], he will frame the race in very populist terms and Kirk cannot do that.”

Giannoulias has spent the primary working hard to portray himself as a champion of working people. His first TV commercial was titled “Standing Up for Jobs” and featured him mingling with supporters at a Hartmarx Corp. clothing factory.

“Mark Kirk, the likely Republican nominee, is the ultimate insider with the campaign chest of corporate money to prove it,” said Kati Phillips, a spokeswoman for Giannoulias.
 
Other Democrats agreed. “I think Mark Kirk is a formidable candidate but I think Kirk can be tagged with all of the dysfunction and all of the ills of Washington,” said Michael Powell, Hoffman’s campaign manager.

Kirk brushed aside the suggestion that he’ll be portrayed as a Washington insider. “I voted 40 times to lower taxes,” he said, adding about Giannoulias: “Coming out of the Broadway Bank and being part of the Democratic state government of Illinois, it’s hard to paint yourself as some sort of outsider.”

The Hoffman campaign is also using Giannoulias's experience at his family's bank against him.


“He was there from 2002 to 2006 when decisions were made that led to the financial demise of the bank,” Powell said. “I think that that is a challenge for him.”

Powell continued, “David is really the only true outsider in the race. He’s been well-positioned for some time to take advantage of people who want something different. Those are the voters we’ve been appealing to.”

The Giannoulias campaign, meanwhile, points to the treasurer's refusal to take donations from corporate political action committees or federal lobbyists as a sign he'll "stand up to insiders and stand up for regular people."

Jackson’s campaign insists that she is the candidate most in touch with voters’ angst.

“Cheryle Jackson has been in touch with that frustration since she entered the race. In fact, it is a principal reason she felt compelled to [run],” said Bob Kettlewell, her spokesman. “Cheryle has been talking to voters about jobs, expansion of credit for small businesses and consumers, and shifting priorities from Wall Street to Main Street, and her message is resonating with voters more every day.”

For all the talk about voters’ anxiety, said Kirk, the GOP’s win in Massachusetts has brought a “disciplined focus” to the Illinois party.

“For Republicans it’s heartening, because they all know in Illinois that if you can win in Massachusetts you can win in Illinois,” he said.