Thursday, January 7, 2010

Andy Martin: Mark Kirk's Secret Agent Man?

If I were a Birther, or a Bircher, or Mel Gibson playing Jerry Fletcher in "Conspiracy Theory", I'd be convinced that Andy Martin's campaign is being secretly funded by allies of GOP rival Mark Steven Kirk.
Kirk, of course, is the liberal Republican congressman who represents Illinois' 10th Congressional District -- Chicago's North Shore suburbs (which you've seen in the background if you ever watched "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" or "Risky Business" or the CBS summer replacement series "Swingtown") -- and is now running for the GOP nomination for the Senate seat once held by Barack Obama.

Martin, for those readers outside the listening range of Chicago radio stations WLS, WGN, and WBBM, would be described properly as a "gadfly," except that I actually know and like some gadflies, and I wouldn't want to insult them.

He is a perpetual candidate for office whose Wikipedia entry is so wildly amusing that three weeks ago, he filed a lawsuit against -- wait for it -- Wikipedia itself, claiming that it is "a tax-exempt protosocialist scam that seeks to harass Republicans, conservatives and Obama opponents."
So, with that as our background, why would a conspiracy theorist believe that Kirk's allies are secretly funding Martin's campaign?

Because last week, Martin aired radio ads declaring that a well known conservative donor in Illinois says there is a "solid rumor" that Kirk is gay. And yesterday, Martin upped the ante, swapping out that ad for a new radio ad, declaring that Kirk is a "de facto pedophile."
Even in the cesspool that is Chicago politics, this is strong stuff.

Nobody I know buys the content of the advertising. In fact, just about everybody I know -- myself included -- thinks it's some of the most repugnant stuff they've ever heard aired in a campaign.

These ads are so inflammatory that, surely, any reasonable person could see that they do nothing but damage whatever kind of a "campaign" Martin had put together for himself.

More importantly, in an odd turn, the ads actually help Kirk.

To understand how, we have to back up just a bit.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee wants this seat badly. This is the seat, after all, that is currently held by Roland Burris. Given the national controversy over then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich's decision to appoint Burris, the NRSC, appropriately, almost feels entitled to the seat.
From the beginning, Kirk is the guy they wanted in the race. His liberal-to-moderate record -- he scored a 48 on the American Conservative Union rating in 2008, and a 40 in 2007 -- made him, in the eyes of Washington-based GOP strategists, just the kind of "centrist Republican" they thought would be needed to win a statewide race in Illinois.

For months, Kirk played coy. He would express interest, but refuse to commit -- clearly, he was worried about Democratic Attorney General Lisa Madigan jumping into the race on the other side of the aisle. Why give up a House seat he had held onto in two tough re-election campaigns in 2006 and 2008, just to lose to the 800-pound gorilla of Illinois politics?
So when Kirk voted for the cap-and-trade environmental bill -- he was one of only eight Republicans in the House to do so -- many of those same Washington-based Republican strategists took it as a sign he wouldn't be running for the Senate after all.

The NRSC, approaching desperation, began discussions with then-Illinois GOP chairman Andy McKenna (whose previous run at statewide office -- coincidentally, for the same Senate seat, in 2004 -- had ended in a disappointing fourth-place finish in the GOP primary).

Then Madigan announced she wouldn't be running for the Senate, and Kirk immediately declared a mulligan. He started calling allies, telling them he'd decided to get in, after all. But McKenna saw Kirk's vote for cap-and-trade as a massive liability (especially in a GOP primary), and made strong noises about challenging Kirk for the nod. Kirk made clear to the NRSC that the committee had to get McKenna out of the Senate primary, or he wouldn't get in. Eventually, McKenna backed off, and decided to run for the GOP nomination for governor instead.

So NRSC leaders ultimately got the candidate they wanted -- a Republican congressman from the North Shore suburbs, whose liberal voting record includes not just the vote for cap-and-trade, but strong support for abortion rights (Kirk earned a 100 percent rating from both Planned Parenthood and NARAL), an "F" rating from the NRA (and an "F-" from the Gun Owners of America!), and votes against the ban on "partial-birth" abortion and against defending traditional marriage.

Perhaps more importantly for an Illinois Republican primary, Kirk also voted to authorize funding to transfer enemy combatants from Guantanamo Bay.

The NRSC may have had influence over McKenna, but the committee had little influence over others in Illinois who were interested in the GOP nomination -- like Patrick Hughes and John Arrington and Kathleen Thomas and Don Lowery.

By all accounts, it's difficult to find much evidence of campaigns being mounted by Arrington, Thomas, and Lowery.

Hughes, on the other hand, is a different matter.
A Hinsdale developer, Hughes announced in August 2009 that he would challenge Kirk for the GOP nomination.

He launched his first TV ad this week, and his appearance before the Chicago Tribune editorial board shows a candidate who is thoughtful, reasonable, and conservative -- and one who knows how to define a contrast between himself and his opponent.
He began his campaign by putting his money where his mouth is, with a $250,000 contribution to kick-start things. The grass-roots enthusiasm for his candidacy appears to be growing -- on Tuesday, in Homer Glen (a southwest suburb of Chicago), 500 people showed up at a meet-and-greet hosted by the Will County Tea Party Alliance, and the campaign almost ran out of yard signs. As I write this on Thursday, he's got a crowd of 100 who've braved a Chicago snowstorm to attend a fundraising lunch in Lake Forest (a North Shore suburb in Kirk's back yard).

But he faces the same chicken-and-egg problem all underdog, underfinanced campaigns face when it comes to taking on the big dogs -- people who should be his natural allies say, "We'd love to be helpful, but you need to show us some metrics that show you can win." No one wants to be the first to plant a flag; even among many conservatives, there's a tendency to want to wrap oneself in the strength provided by numbers.
Kirk, of course, is acting like there's no primary, because it's to his benefit to sneak this one in under the radar. He's making few campaign appearances, skipping the kind of local joint candidate forums that are the bread and butter of primary campaigns. He's paid for no television ads, no radio ads, no direct mail, and only one walk piece. He's hoping that his superior name identification, combined with what will likely be low primary turnout for the Feb. 2 primary, can lead him to victory without having to drain any of his precious campaign resources -- resources he thinks he'll need for a bruising fall general election campaign.

So Kirk would be happy if the Illinois media didn't write a single article about the contest between now and Feb. 2; failing that, his next highest wish is to have nothing written about Hughes, the one conservative challenger who looks like he could actually mount a sustained challenge to Kirk's nomination.

Given that there's a donnybrook going on in the contest for the GOP nomination for governor -- a contest which features no fewer than six serious candidates, and which has provided much entertainment for the political class in Illinois -- Kirk isn't asking for much. He's just trying to keep his head down and keep everyone's attention focused on the governor's race instead of the Senate primary, and whatever you do, don't write about Hughes.

That's why Martin's outrageous ads help Kirk -- they suck up what little media oxygen is in the room for the Senate contest. Hughes can't break through in earned media if the story of the day is Andy Martin and his whacko ads.

It's almost enough to make you think ... nah, not even Machiavelli would have come up with this kind of scheme.

Of course, Machiavelli probably would've lost a race for Alderman.

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