If you’ve ever heard anything good about Alexi Giannoulias or Mark Kirk, it’s hard to remember it, because the campaign for US Senate is being waged almost entirely in the negative.
They’ve raised more than $14-million to savage each other (Kirk about $9-million, Giannoulias about $5.6 million). For a while, Giannoulias did run an ad in which President Obama told us we could trust Alexi, Illinois being one of a handful of states in which an Obama embrace is still good news for a candidate. Since then, though, you can trust Alexi to sling mud in every ad.
The candidates play tit for tat — “He lent money to mobsters!” “He lied about his military record!” “He oversaw mis-investment of scholarship money!” “He’s from a wealthy district and doesn’t feel your economic pain!”
Now, outside groups are helping the candidates accentuate the negatives. A quick and unscientific look at newscasts where political ads tend to cluster indicates that outside groups are slinging as much on-air mud as the principals, right now.
Sunlight Foundation, a reporting group focused on such things, reports the Illinois Senate race is also attracting scads of “unlimited money”— spending by outside groups. About $10.6 million, says the Foundation, ranking Kirk-Giannoulias #5 among all Senate races.
That spending is split roughly down the middle, but it’s almost all going negative. 92-percent of outside money targeting Kirk is being spent by groups opposing his candidacy, while 99-percent of spending aimed at Giannoulias comes from his foes.
Who’s doing the “outsider” spending?
70% of the anti-Kirk ads have been funded by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC). According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the top donors to the DSCC are campaigns of Democrats who don’t face re-election fights or have only token opposition this year (Senators Schumer, Baucus, Dorgan, Konrad, Harkin, and Kerry all gave $200,000 or more). Individuals can’t give more than $30,000 to the DSCC.
Nearly 90% of the spots attacking Giannoulias, meanwhile, were paid for by American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS, a pair of groups put together by Republican strategists Ed Gillespie and Karl Rove.
American Crossroads is a so-called “Super PAC”. As a Political Action Committee, it can accept unlimited donations, while contributions to campaigns are capped at $2400.
Million-dollar donors to American Crossroads include Texas billionaires Trevor Rees-Jones (Chief Gas & Oil), Robert Rowling (TRT Holdings), Harold Simmons (SW Louisiana Land LLC) and Hollywood TV mogul Jerry Perenchio.
Crossroads GPS is spending even bigger money in Illinois ($3.4 million and climbing), though its non-profit status means we don’t know who’s doing the donating.
David Brooks, a smart and moderately-conservative columnist for the New York Times, argues that the focus on outside groups and campaign spending in general is overblown: “In this day and age, money is almost never the difference between victory and defeat. It’s just the primitive mythology of the political class. “
Perhaps, but in a race as tight as Giannoulias vs. Kirk, an ally that doubles your punching ability in the late rounds is someone who might well have your ear, once you’re in office. Shouldn’t one be more suspicious about the agenda of Texas billionaires than a party committee funded largely by fellow Senators?
In a separate article last week, Brooks painted Kirk as man who “has led a life that is extremely impressive in most respects”, but who was being slimed in an ugly campaign. Brooks says Kirk “has become the House’s leading moderate”.
Brooks cites a 55% rating by the liberal Americans for Democratic Action, though Kirk’s ADA rating last year was actually 35%.
And interest group ratings compiled by Project Vote Smart show that Kirk has pulled to the right quite a bit in the last year, perhaps in preparation for a Senate run. Examples:
- Club for Growth, a conservative small-government group, says Kirk backed its position 58% of the time last year, as opposed to just 19% in 2007.
- The American Conservative Union gave Kirk a 72% rating in ’09, up from 48% the year before.
- Kirk’s ratings on abortion rights appear to have shifted. The National Abortion Rights Action League says Kirk agreed with its positions 100% of the time between 1995 and 2007. Last year, Kirk’s NARAL rating dropped to 25% (couldn’t find a rating for 2008).
Overall, Kirk has been a pretty moderate Republican voice in Congress as he represented a high-income North Shore Congressional area, a classic swing district.
He’s become less moderate, even shedding his support for legislation to fight climate change, as he moved onto the statewide stage. It certainly makes you question if he’d be a “leading moderate” in the US Senate, especially if Karl Rove and some conservative Texas billionaires and undisclosed donors provided critical help to get him there.