December 7, 2016



As the hapless Mark Kirk fades into oblivion after one forgettable term as a Republican U.S. senator from Illinois, he will be remembered for two reasons.

First, Kirk is the worst beaten senator in the state since 1948. Kirk lost to Democrat Tammy Duckworth 2,908,363-2,150,099 in November, an astounding margin of 758,264 votes. If there is any consolation for Kirk, he did top Donald Trump's 2,140,595-vote performance, if only by 9,504 votes.

Kirk made a gargantuan effort to separate himself from Trump, claiming to be an independent senator, pointedly withdrawing his endorsement of Trump, demanding a vote on Barack Obama's Supreme Court nominee, and stressing his pro-choice, pro-gay rights, pro-gun control and pro-immigrant stances, but the state's anti-Trump and pro-Clinton voters were singularly unimpressed. Hillary Clinton won Illinois 3,083,643-2,140,595, a margin of 943,048 votes. Duckworth got 175,280 fewer votes than Clinton, which means that about 165,000 Clinton voters made no pick in the Senate race, while just fewer than 10,000 picked Kirk.

Kirk now ranks atop the pantheon of such forgettable worst beaten luminaries as Republicans Ralph Tyler Smith, who lost his Senate seat by 545,336 votes in 1970, and Curly Brooks, who lost by 434,728 votes in 1948, as is shown in the attached chart. The more distinguished Democrat Paul Douglas lost by 422,302 votes in 1966.

Second, Kirk was the worst defeated incumbent in the 2016 election. In fact, despite the so-called "Trump movement" and the perceived demand for change, only two of 29 U.S. senators on the ballot were defeated, Kirk and New Hampshire Republican Kelly Ayotte, who lost by 714 votes.

Kirk was part of the Republican "Class of 2010," all 11 of whom benefited from an adverse voter reaction to "Obamacare" and the president. The winners included Rob Portman of Ohio, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, John Boozman of Arkansas, Marco Rubio of Florida, Dan Coats of Indiana, Rand Paul of Kentucky, Roy Blunt of Missouri, John Hoeven of North Dakota, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and Ayotte. Coats retired in 2016, but the other eight were re-elected despite early expectations that an anti-Trump undertow would seal their doom. Johnson and Toomey were deemed certain losers. Portman, Toomey, Kirk and Ayotte all pointedly ran apart from Trump, all positioned themselves as "independents," none positioned themselves as a social conservative, all directed their message to Clinton voters, and each got more votes than Trump.

Portman won re-election by 1,118,594 votes, while Trump won Ohio of by 454,983 votes. Toomey won by 100,165 votes, and Trump won Pennsylvania by 68,236. In usually liberal Wisconsin, the conservative Johnson won by 98,766 votes and Trump won by 27,257. All had the much desired "separation" from Trump, but Trump won those states. Elsewhere, Trump-Pence tailwinds boosted Blunt, Paul and Todd Young of Indiana.

In Florida, it was 2016 Trump primary opponent Rubio who provided the lift. Rubio won by 716,937 votes, while Trump triumphed by 119,770.

So what happened to Kirk? He basically lost on Jan. 21, 2012 when, at age 52, he suffered an ischemic stroke. He was hospitalized until May, and he largely used a wheelchair thereafter. Voters can accept physical disabilities, especially if they are war- or accident-related; Duckworth lost part of three limbs in an Afghanistan helicopter crash, and she uses a wheelchair. However, voters recoil at mental infirmities, and they want their senators to be at the top of their game. Kirk's physical recovery was heroic, but a succession of verbal mistakes brought his mental acuity and judgment into question and became the campaign's subtext. Voters wondered if Kirk was up to the job.

Unable to strenuously campaign, Kirk's appearances were few and heavily scripted. He never established an identity or built a base over 6 years. He did raise $12,762,174, to $15,055,642 for Duckworth. Kirk won 1,778,698-1,719,478 in 2010, a margin of 59,220 votes. In November Kirk carried 84 of Illinois' 102 counties, but he was buried 1,423,087-512,164 in Cook County and 672,287-631,058 in the outlying counties around Chicago. He got 371,401 more votes than he did in 2010, but Duckworth got 1,188,885 more votes than 2010 loser Alexi Giannoulias. When turnout spikes from 3.5 million to 5.1 million, no Republican can win.

Here's a look as past races:

1948. Remember the iconic photo of Harry Truman holding the Chicago Tribune's "Dewey Defeats Truman" headline? Republican Tom Dewey, the New York governor, was supposed to beat Truman, and he was supposed to sweep all other Republicans to victory, including Brooks and two-term Governor Dwight Green in Illinois. Brooks was an iconoclastic, isolationist senator who was elected in 1940 and 1942 and whose biggest cheerleader was the Chicago Tribune.

Straight-ticket voting was the norm, and the expectation was that Dewey, despite a complacent campaign, would win Illinois by 200,000-plus votes. The Chicago Democratic machine was in disarray, with boss Ed Kelly having left City Hall in 1947. The Democrats' "sacrificial lambs" were Douglas, a Chicago alderman from Hyde Park, and Adlai Stevenson II, a Chicago lawyer.

Polls did not detect the late Truman surge, much as they failed in 2016. Truman won Illinois 1,994,715-1,961,103, a margin of only 33,612 votes. The Republican ticket, however, collapsed. Brooks lost 2,174,754-1,740,026, a margin of 434,728 votes, getting 221,077 fewer votes than Dewey, and Green lost 2,250,074-1,678,007, a margin of 572,067 votes, running 283,096 votes behind Dewey. Green still holds the record as the worst defeated Illinois governor. In 1948 voters wanted "change" in Illinois but not in Washington.

1950. The Democrats should never slate anybody nicknamed "Tubbo" for major office. Incumbent Scott Lucas, a Downstater who was first elected in 1938, was the powerful Senate majority leader, and he was deemed a cinch to beat retired congressman Everett Dirksen, but then along came Estes Kefauver's Senate crime-investigating committee in October, and they invited Chicago police captain Daniel Gilbert, known as "Tubbo," the self-proclaimed "richest cop the world" and a candidate for sheriff, to discuss organized crime. In a closed-door hearing, Tubbo regaled the senators about the great and glorious opportunities for gambling in the city, of which he regularly partook, as well as other amusements.

The transcript leaked, Tubbo lost by 400,000 votes, Lucas lost Cook County by 8,000 votes, and Dirksen went to Washington, where he stayed for 19 years.

1966. For the 74-year-old Douglas, it was "LBJ All The Way" -- to involuntary retirement. Douglas, a social issue liberal, was always a foreign policy "hawk," and he consistently backed Lyndon Johnson's Vietnam policies. Wealthy Republican businessman Chuck Percy, age 47, who had lost 2,418,394-2,239,095 for governor in 1964, positioned himself as more youthful and more "dovish," and he trounced Douglas 2,100,449-1,678,147, a margin of 422,302 votes. Douglas is a sad example of a politician who has become obsolete.

1970. Rod Blagojevich is in federal prison because, among other conduct, he allegedly offered to "sell" Obama's Senate seat, although there was no conviction on that charge. However, an Illinois U.S. Senate seat has been traded, if not sold.

Back in late 1967, as the 1968 gubernatorial field was forming and Otto Kerner was set to be a federal judge, Ralph Tyler Smith decided he wanted to be governor. Downstater Smith was the obscure Republican speaker of the Illinois House, the job that Mike Madigan now has. Getting no traction, Smith made a deal with Republican Cook County Board President Dick Ogilvie whereby he would endorse Ogilvie for governor if Ogilvie promised to appoint him senator when Dirksen died. Ogilvie needed Downstate support.

The operative word was "when," not "if." Dirksen, age 72, was on the 1968 ballot, but he was a lifelong smoker and his rapidly failing health was no secret. Dirksen died in September of 1969, and Smith went to Washington, where he became a slavish supporter of the Nixon Administration. Urban riots and anti-war campus demonstrations were prevalent, and Smith ran as a law-and-order candidate. He was crushed by the dovish Adlai Stevenson III, the state treasurer, losing by 545,336 votes. Political royalty conquers all.

1984. After winning by 1,146,047 votes in 1972, Percy "went Washington," espousing liberal views and harboring presidential dreams. He defeated Alex Seith in 1978 by only 250,524 votes, a drop-off of 895,523 votes. He never got the conservative Republicans' message. In 1984, while Ronald Reagan won Illinois by 620,604 votes, the ever-so-important Percy, then the Foreign Relations Committee chairman, lost by 89,126 votes to Paul Simon.

1992. It was the "Year of the Woman," stemming from the 1991 hearings on the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court. Carol Moseley Braun, the obscure Cook County recorder of deeds, decided to run for senator against two-termer Alan Dixon, a nondescript, loquacious Downstate Democrat known as "Al the Pal," who was no liberal. Dixon would have beaten Moseley Braun in a one-on-one race, but trial lawyer Al Hofeld also ran, and Braun won 557,694-504,077-394,497, a margin of 57,617 votes. Moseley Braun was in the right place at the right time.

1998. Voter tolerance for Moseley Braun's unending string of questionable ethics and antics dissipated after 6 years. Peter Fitzgerald, a Palatine state senator, won Downstate by more than 400,000 votes and beat the incumbent 1,709,041-1,610,496, a margin of 98.545 votes. Moseley Braun lost because she aggravated voters, particularly white voters, by comporting herself like a Chicago alderman. However, she wasn't the worst beaten.

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