- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 9, 2009

Rep. Mark Steven Kirk, Illinois Republican, has decided to run for President Obama’s former Senate seat, after a top state Democrat turned down aggressive White House efforts to recruit her for a race shaping up to be a major battleground contest next year.

Senior Republican Party officials told The Washington Times on Wednesday that the five-term congressman will be a candidate for the seat now held by Sen. Roland W. Burris, a Democrat. Mr. Burris was appointed by then-Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich, a Democrat, before he was removed from office by the state legislature on charges he tried to sell the seat to the highest bidder.

Mr. Kirk, who is considered the Republican Party’s strongest candidate because of his vote-getting ability in a Democratic-leaning district, made his decision just hours after the news broke that state Attorney General Lisa Madigan had turned down pleas by Mr. Obama to enter the race.

Ms. Madigan, who had been rumored as a candidate for both governor and senator, surprised the state political establishment by announcing she had decided instead to seek re-election as attorney general.

Election analysts said her decision gives Republicans a stronger chance to pick up the seat.

“Kirk is a very strong statewide candidate for Republicans. This is an easier race for them now that Madigan is not running,” said Jennifer E. Duffy, senior analyst at the Cook Political Report.

Mr. Kirk represents a congressional district that Mr. Obama carried with 61 percent of the vote in 2008, but the Republican has succeeded in beating back all challengers since his first race in 2000. He raised $580,000 in the second quarter of 2009 and has $1.1 million in cash on hand.

Mr. Burris, who remains the target of a Senate ethics inquiry over the events surrounding his appointment, has denied any wrongdoing but has not said whether he intends to run for a full term of his own next year.

But several Democrats were expected to run for the Senate next year no matter what Mr. Burris decides, promising a potentially divisive primary fight. State Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias has announced his candidacy, and businessman Chris Kennedy is expected to soon follow him into the race.

Ms. Madigan’s decision was a blow to the White House, which had pushed hard to get her to run next year. She met with Mr. Obama; White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, himself a former Illinois congressman; and senior adviser Valerie Jarrett last month in what was described as a full-court press to draft her for the race. Her reasons for turning them down remain unclear.

Still, a number of questions “need to be answered” before the direction of the race becomes clear, Ms. Duffy said.

“Does Kirk get a competitive primary? Does Burris run now that Madigan isn’t? Can Democrats avoid a bruising primary?” she said.

“One thing to remember is that Illinois has a very early filing deadline, the first week in November, and an early primary in March. This means that Democrats might be less concerned with the fallout from a primary, and more with making sure that a viable general-election candidate emerges from that contest,” she said.

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