Why Illinois' pivotal Senate race stirs so little enthusiasm

A Tuesday debate between Democrat Alexi Giannoulias and Republican Mark Kirk offered personal attacks and a nasty tone as the candidates tried to shake up the race. It didn't appear to work.

Charles Rex Arbogast/AP
Illinois US Senate candidates Republican Mark Kirk (l.) and Democrat Alexi Giannoulias look into the audience before a televised debate on Tuesday in Chicago.

If Illinois voters were hoping that Tuesday night’s Senate debate between Democratic candidate Alexi Giannoulias and Republican Mark Kirk would break new ground, they were disappointed.

As in so many races right now, the tone is nasty; the sparring personal. Tuesday, both candidates attacked each other over military service (or the lack of it).

Yet for a Senate race that is both close and pivotal – a crucial pickup for Republicans if they are to have any shot at taking over the Senate – the race has been marked by an overwhelming lack of voter enthusiasm.

The character attacks – often a means of firing up a candidate's own base – seem to be doing little for either candidate. With polls showing 15 percent of Illinois voters still undecided, it seems likely that the victory will come down to which candidate is better at mobilizing his voters and getting people to the polls.

Mr. Giannoulias has some help in high places – many Illinois Democrats got a robo-call from President Obama this week asking them to vote early. Meanwhile, Congressman Kirk has a significant fundraising advantage, with almost four times as much cash on hand.

'Shot at or not?'

In the debate, Mr. Giannoulias, the state treasurer, hammered away yet again at Congressman Kirk for embellishing his military record in the Gulf War.

“The question, congressman, is, why with this record, would you not tell the truth? Why would you make all this stuff up?” Giannoulias asked Kirk, several times asking him, “Were you shot at or not?"

(The question refers to a 2003 video that shows Kirk saying he was shot at while on an aircraft in Iraq; Kirk has already apologized for some other misstatements about his military service.)

Kirk, meanwhile, shot back at Giannoulias, accusing him of staking his campaign on an attack against his military record while “he never served a day in uniform himself.”

He questioned Giannoulias’s role in running an Illinois program that lost $70 million in college savings. He also pressed Giannoulias about his record at his family’s bank, where he was the chief loan officer and vice president at a time when many loans were made that were later defaulted on, including some to two organized-crime figures.

“I made a mistake and I corrected it,” Kirk said in the debate. “Meanwhile, my opponent says nothing is really his fault.”

Illinois: swing state no more

Illinois used to be a swing state, but has been lodged fairly firmly in the Democratic camp for at least the past decade. But voters have been unable to muster much enthusiasm for Giannoulias, a young state treasurer who has the approval of the Democratic machine but has been dogged by complaints about his past competence.

Kirk, meanwhile, is one of the last remaining moderate Republicans – though he moved right for the primary – but has been hurt by both the character charges and the uphill battle faced by any Republican in this state.

“People are throwing up their hands because they hate both candidates,” R. Craig Sautter, a DePaul political scientist, told the Monitor last week.

The debate didn’t stay mired completely in the character attacks.

Giannoulias hammered Kirk for being part of the “overspending, overtaxing, over-borrowing ethos in Washington” and promised to focus on job creation.

Kirk – much later in the debate – seemed to echo those words when he said “we should spend less, borrow less, and tax less," and focus on fiscal responsibility. He tried to put some daylight between his views and those of more conservative Republicans, noting that he has supported stem-cell research, the S-CHIP program (for kids’ health care), cuts to oil subsidies, and that he backs civil unions.

But in terms of changing the tenor of the race, this debate did little.

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