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Thursday, April 8, 2010 10:21 am

U.S. Senate candidates give each other gifts of gaffes

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For a couple of otherwise pretty smart fellas, the two major party candidates for U.S. Senate seem to be playing right into the other’s hands these days.

It seems to me at times that Republican Senate candidate Mark Kirk doesn’t quite seem to grasp what Illinois is really like outside his north suburban 10th Congressional District, which he has represented for several years. Maybe that’s why he almost never informs the media of his campaign events and rarely holds press conferences.

It was one of those recent closed to the media events that got Kirk into trouble lately. Kirk told a group of contributors that he would “lead the effort” to repeal the federal health care bill if it was passed into law. Somebody recorded the speech and leaked it to the media. Kirk had also signed a pledge circulated by the ultra-conservative Club for Growth group vowing to repeal the law.

After the bill actually passed, Kirk was pressed by the media about his bold promises to repeal the law and he had to back down.

The reasoning for Kirk’s flip-flop was obvious. The legislation includes several immediate reforms, like eliminating lifetime caps on insurance payouts, instituting a tax credit for small businesses and closing a hole in Medicare coverage to limit pharmaceutical costs for senior citizens. Being for repeal would mean getting rid of all of that, and lots more. Kirk didn’t seem to understand the actual details during his speech, however, claiming that nothing major would take effect for years. So if President Barack Obama, whom Kirk called “this guy,” could be made a one-termer, the law could be eliminated without anyone noticing, he erroneously declared.

Soon after the bill passed, national opinion polls showed gains for Obama, the Democratic Congress and the health reform bill. Kirk suddenly found himself on the wrong side of an issue, particularly in Illinois.

The Obama angle is hugely important to this equation. In the end, the health care measure was President Obama’s bill. Obama is from Illinois and has remained popular here despite his problems elsewhere in the nation. Even when the health care bill was tanking nationally, polls showed a majority of Illinoisans supported it.

So, with good reason, Kirk’s Democratic opponent Alexi Giannoulias has sought to nationalize the fall election. Giannoulias wants to make the election a referendum on Illinois’ favorite son Obama, which has a much better shot at working here than anywhere else. Kirk has tried to portray himself as a moderate, but being against Obama right down the line will make him look like a run-of-the-mill Republican obstructionist come November. Kirk walked right into the trap on health care.

While Giannoulias wants to nationalize the election, Kirk wants to localize it. Kirk has focused like a laser on Giannoulias’ family bank, which is in real danger of going under.

Giannoulias used his experience at the bank to bolster his campaign for state treasurer four years ago. He was, he said, a “senior loan officer,” and that experience would help him in the treasurer’s office.

Trouble is, the bank made some loans to some highly unsavory characters, including folks with cute Outfit nicknames like “Jaws” Giorango. Many of those loans have since gone bad and the heat has intensified on Giannoulias as the federal government has demanded that the family come up with more than $80 million to keep the bank alive.

Giannoulias told everybody who would listen that he didn’t know about the criminal histories of the alleged Outfit types until 2006, when he ran for treasurer. But his brother, a more senior bank officer, recently admitted that he knew about their criminal pasts when he made the loans. If his brother knew, it stands to reason that Alexi should also have known. Either way, though, Kirk’s life just got a whole lot easier. That tried and true political attack question: “What did he know and when did he know it?” will be trotted out again and again between now and November.

The situation isn’t much different in the governor’s race. We have two candidates, Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn and Republican state Sen. Bill Brady, who are constantly giving each other “gifts.” Brady sponsors a bill to once again allow mass euthanasia of dogs and cats. Quinn picks a running mate based on her famous last name and her support for his tax increase, but who couldn’t even win a small-town mayor’s race.

Can’t anybody play this game?

Rich Miller publishes Capitol Fax, a daily

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